UPDATE: Jan. 23, 2017
After scolding an eastern Idaho Republican for launching what they called a "frivolous" challenge to the November 2016 election win of Pocatello Democratic Sen. Mark Nye, members of the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously Monday to award more than $19,000 in attorney fees and costs to Nye. The Republican challenger, Tom Katsilometes, will have to foot the bill, pending approval from the full Senate.
"You did not have a good faith-basis, in fact or law, to pursue this election contest," Sen. Bart Davis (R-Idaho Falls) told Katsilometes during the Monday morning committee hearing.
Nye defeated Katsilometes by a 536-vote margin in the most recent general election, but Katsilometes made claims of vote miscounting and violations of Sunshine Law rules regarding campaign donations.
"Sen. Nye had to defend the election process and himself at his sole cost and expense," said Davis.
Ultimately, the panel voted to award Nye $18,060 in attorney fees and $1,711.84 in costs, to be paid by Katsilometes.
ORIGINAL POST: Jan. 16, 2017
While Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway (R-Terreton) cautioned his fellow lawmakers "this is not a court of law," what followed Monday morning was nearly three hours of arguments, counter-arguments and cross examination that resembled a courtroom drama.
At issue was a rare election challenge in which Republican candidate Tom Katsilometes lost to Sen. Mark Nye (D-Pocatello) in the 2016 general election.
Nye, who had previously served in the Idaho House of Representatives, won by 536 votes, but Katsilometes claimed there were issues with vote tabulations—an allegation that a subsequent recount refuted.
"This is a very serious matter," said committee member and Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill (R-Rexburg). "We have spent countless hours reading and studying documents and talking with the attorney general's office on this."
The hearing Monday marked only the third time in Idaho history when an election contest has ended up in the lap of the Idaho Legislature: once in 1945 and again in 1980. In both instances, the challenges were dismissed.
Katsilometes and his attorney, Kahle Becker, spent a generous amount of their time Monday morning arguing about nine campaign donations made to Nye between Jan. 1, 2016 and March, 1, 2016, when Nye was still a member of the House. After Nye decided to run for the Senate on March 1, monies were transferred to a separate Senate campaign account. Nye's attorney, former Pocatello Democratic Rep. James Ruchti, told the State Affairs Committee his client was in full communication with the Idaho Secretary of State's office regarding the proper procedure for transferring the funds.
"This issue has been looked at—and reviewed by—the Secretary of State's office and they found there was no violation," said Ruchti. "Look, a lot of things about elections are unfair: people start rumors, the process is ugly, the process is messy. But it has worked for this state for years and years and years. A winning margin of 536 votes is not a small amount."
Ruchti argued that if the committee had decided to reverse the election results, "It would not just be news in Bannock County, it would cast doubt on all elections. I'm extremely alarmed that the government would consider undoing what the people had already done."
Following two-and-a-half hours of examination, the committee moved to support Nye's election and dismiss Katsilometes' claims.
"The overriding issue here is fairness," said Siddoway. "I can see some mistakes may have been made but those mistakes were minor. They wouldn't have changed the election. I'm inclined to support the motion."
With that, the committee voted unanimously to uphold Nye's election. But the matter isn't completely closed yet. Both Nye and Katsilometes want the committee to approve the payment of attorney's fees, meaning the public would be on the hook for paying the legal bills. Siddoway ordered both sides to present a full list of those fees by the end of the week and the committee will take up that issue Monday, Jan. 23.
"In the meantime, I appreciate your efforts on this difficult day," said Siddoway before bringing down the gavel. "It can only get better."