Idaho lawmakers underwent a half-day of ethics training Wednesday as part of an ongoing effort by legislative leaders to discourage behavior that damages public confidence in government.
"None of us in this room plan on acting unethically," said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill of Idaho Falls. "Nor do I think we are going to have a problem this year. But I do think we need to be reminded and rededicate ourselves."
The Idaho Legislature has held the training every two years since 2013. It's intended primarily for the state's 105 lawmakers, but lobbyists and members of the public also can attend.
Speakers included a former Iowa Legislature ethics committee chairman who challenged lawmakers to uphold a culture of integrity and be aware of their stress points to avoid accidental slips as they go into the 2017 session.
The ethics of Idaho lawmakers came under scrutiny over the past year after news broke that Rep. Ron Nate had secretly recorded a private conversation with Hill before the May primary election. Hill had endorsed Nate's opponent, straying from the tradition of legislative leadership backing incumbents.
Nate, who won in the primary, has declined to comment on the contents of the recordings but has publicly stated that he's seen too much lying and cheating in the Idaho Statehouse, and recording a conversation amounts to legal protection.
A few months later, legislative leaders called on auditors to investigate the travel expenses of two lawmakers facing allegations of having an extramarital affair. The investigation eventually cleared Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, and Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, but the incident left many questioning lawmakers' commitment to avoid unbecoming conduct — as directed by the Legislature's rules.
"Stress leads to ethical lapses in judgment, so you need to be aware," said former Iowa state Rep. Scott Raecker, who heads Character Counts, an institute housed at Drake University that promotes civil society and also offers programs in public schools.
Raecker, a Republican, added that state statutes rarely have the answers to all ethical dilemmas. Instead, lawmakers typically face a litany of tough situations — such as balancing loyalty between political party and constituents.
As a citizen-led Legislature, personal conflicts are almost unavoidable. Lawmakers often rely on their personal expertise as lawyers, farmers, teachers and other professionals to make informed decisions while developing and voting on public policy.
However, lawmakers are required to disclose possible conflicts before casting a vote, creating tension about the timing of such a disclosure.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, who has participated in prior ethical training, repeated a familiar mantra: It's never a crime to over-disclose entanglements, perceived or otherwise.
"To me, taking this training is a tremendous vote of confidence," he said.