Conflict of confirmation 

Senate renews commitment to grill appointees

Undocumented nannies. Unpaid taxes. Pubic hairs on a coke. Unpaid taxes.

These are some of the embarrassing things that come up in federal confirmation hearings when U.S. senators take their jobs seriously.

But the Idaho Senate, which has the equivalent power to check gubernatorial authority by grilling and either approving or rejecting appointments to dozens of boards, panels, commissions and departments, often rolls over.

"The process of confirmation had become kind of a rubber stamp," said Sen. Mike Jorgenson, the Hayden Lake Republican who led a grilling of the State Board of Education during last year's session.

Though board members were eventually reconfirmed last year, the Senate Education Committee delayed its vote on them and took the entire board to task for gross mismanagement of the agency's budget.

In the end, no one was held accountable.

Sen. Gary Schroeder, a Moscow Republican who also sits on the education committee, has attempted to give committees more power in nixing appointees. In the current system, committees can recommend—or recommend against—a nominee to the full Senate, but cannot kill an appointment outright.

"The [education] committee would have straightened out the board long ago," Schroeder said. "The committees I'm on, I know the people."

While Schroeder asserts that it's difficult for the Senate to kill an appointee because of the obvious message it sends to the governor, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, an Idaho Falls attorney, said there are other methods of ensuring viable appointments are made before they even come to committee.

Davis would not elaborate, but Republican Sen. Denton Darrington, of Declo, said that, at times, a brief chat with the governor can help facilitate positive confirmation hearings.

"I've sent a couple of them to Never Never Land myself," Darrington bragged.

Schroeder only recalls one appointee killed by the Senate in the past 17 years after the candidate wrote nasty comments about then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne. Darrington recalls a few more, including a Public Utilities Commission appointment and some 1980s appointees to the Commission of Pardons and Parole.

The Idaho Senate's lax attitude toward confirmation hearings could soon change, as Davis and newly appointed Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, also an attorney, circulate a questionnaire for appointees to committee chairmen.

"I've been wanting to ask a conflict of interest question to all the guys," Kelly said of the confirmation hearings. "It's a huge responsibility that the Senate has, and we've unfortunately been taking it pretty lightly."

In recent hearings in the Senate State Affairs Committee, Davis and Kelly take turns grilling potential appointees.

Davis often takes the commitment line: Have you been attending meetings? Does your public duty fit into your schedule? Davis asks about conflicts of interest as well.

The conflict questions forced Commission on Human Rights appointee Megan Ronk, who also works in the Governor's Office heading up the Idaho Meth Project, to recall one recent instance when she recused herself when an acquaintance had a complaint pending at the commission.

Kelly has been probing candidates on their knowledge and commitment to the board on which they sit and also asking further conflict questions.

In a recent hearing on Vaughn Heinrich's appointment to the Endowment Fund Investment Board, the former school superintendent conceded that he has a lot more to learn and that the large investments which the fund holds are complex.

The committee gave Heinrich the nod anyway.

Last year, Kelly opposed the appointment of Mike Gwartney to head the state's Department of Administration. She was concerned that some of the boards of directors on which Gwartney sits could conflict with his duties to the state. And she did not like the fact that he would serve without pay.

Kelly said the Governor's Office does not do as serious vetting as is done in other states.

"The form is basically name and address and political party," she said.

Meanwhile, Idaho courts require an extensive, 25-page questionnaire for judge candidates.

"If the judicial branch is doing it that way, we should probably be doing it that way," Kelly said.

Davis said that the state asks hundreds of Idahoans a year to sit on committees for little to no pay and that there should be some consideration for their willingness to serve and respect for their commitment.

"As I have watched nominations on C-SPAN, at times, they are beyond the pale," Davis said, referring to federal hearings.

But federal appointees are often paid and have a different constituency. In Idaho, most appointments are near-volunteer jobs.

"We don't need to see their tax returns," Davis said

Every year, the Idaho Senate considers dozens of these appointments and reappointments, from highly active panels like the State Board of Education, the Human Rights Commission (which considers charges of discrimination in state offices), and the Tax Commission, on which an open seat is soon anticipated.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who presides over the Senate and until last month was a senator, will need confirmation, and Davis has informed him he could be a test case for the body's expanded interrogation regime.

On Schroeder's committee, the Resources and Environment Committee, two reappointments to the Fish and Game Commission went off without a hitch.

"Tell us why we should reconfirm you," Schroeder asked Fish and Game Chairman Wayne Wright. "If you want to get reconfirmed, don't talk too long."

Wright kept it brief, mentioning kids and grandkids and the word "heritage."

Committee members then ambled off on a wide ranging discussion with Wright, Commissioner Gary Power—also up for reappointment and sporting a large cowboy hat—and the rest of the Fish and Game board.

Sen. Dean Cameron asked about hunter access to private lands, and Schroeder, a fur trader and taxidermy expert, complained about a Fish and Game employee who does not know the correct way to cut antlers. Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a sheep rancher, asked about wild sheep.

Which brings us back to the conflict question, a notion that is often misunderstood or ignored in Idaho government.

In a discussion over Boise stock broker Brian Scigliano's appointment to the Human Rights Commission, Sen. Russ Fulcher, a Meridian Republican said that Scigliano had done financial consulting for his mother and that he was thankful for that.

Then he voted to approve Scigliano's appointment and offered to carry his water on the Senate floor.

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