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Tuesday October 26th, 2021 8:18AM

Ethics panel: Lawmaker accused of rape should be censured

By The Associated Press
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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho lawmaker who was accused of rape by a 19-year-old intern should be formally censured and suspended from office, a legislative ethics committee found on Thursday.

The full House could vote on the matter as soon as Friday. If a majority agrees, Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger will be required to vacate his office and stay off the Statehouse grounds immediately, and a new lawmaker would be appointed to fill in for the Republican from Lewiston.

The panel also recommend that von Ehlinger be held in contempt for refusing to answer some questions during his testimony on Wednesday. The lawmaker invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself on the advice of his attorney, but Idaho law states that testimony given in a legislative ethics panel can't be used in criminal court cases. That means the Fifth Amendment doesn't apply, the committee said.

The investigation into von Ehlinger began in March after a young staffer reported he raped her in his apartment after the two had dinner at a Boise restaurant. Von Ehlinger has denied all wrongdoing and maintains they had consensual sexual contact. The Boise Police Department is investigating, and von Ehlinger has not been charged.

A suspension would not kick von Ehlinger out of office, but the five-member ethics panel also agreed that they would throw unanimous support behind a motion to expel von Ehlinger if any House lawmaker decides to make one.

The decision came the day after the panel heard hours of testimony, including from the teen who first brought the allegations. She was shielded from public view by a black screen and used the name Jane Doe during the proceedings, but some far-right blogs and at least one lawmaker, Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, has revealed the teen's identity in a social media post and in a link embedded in a newsletter to her constituents. At least one of the blogs was edited days later to remove the teen's photo and name.

The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.

After the teen testified, some of von Ehlinger's supporters pursued her out of the building, attempting to film her as she rushed to her car.

Rep. John McCrostie, a Democrat from Garden City, lauded the intern for her bravery in coming forward.

“Sexual assault survivors are seldom subjected to having their testimony publicly broadcast. But she knew that her truth enabled others to not suffer as she has,” McCrostie said.

“We owe it to Jane Doe and to future Jane Does” to ensure that the work of the House of Representatives is conducted with integrity, he said.

Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Wendy Horman said von Ehlinger was inconsistent in his testimony and wrongly refused to answer pertinent questions, and the evidence showed he maintained a pattern on hitting on subordinates at the Statehouse despite repeated warnings.

She rejected his argument that because there was no written rule against dating staffers, there was nothing wrong with the behavior.

“There is no House rule against poisoning another person, yet his behavior has poisoned all of us,” Horman said. “Conduct unbecoming is an undefined term for a reason per our rules.”

Rep. Brent Crane, a Republican from Nampa, said the public's perception of the entire legislative body will be measured by the incident and that the panel needed to ensure that constituents are served by those with the highest moral standards. He said von Ehlinger engaged in a “predatory pattern” of behavior.

“The Idaho House of Representatives existed long before we arrived, and it will be here long after we leave, but history will judge us by our actions today,” Crane said. “I want our actions to provide a clear directive.”

The attorneys who are representing the intern, Erika Birch and Annie Hightower, released a statement thanking the committee for recommending that von Ehlinger be censured and “taking the first steps to hold him accountable for raping a teen intern.”

Von Ehlinger could be effectively removed from office for the rest of the legislative session. Birch and Hightower urged the legislative body to go further.

“While we appreciate the recommendation to remove von Ehlinger, we believe the House should take steps to make the removal permanent by moving for his permanent expulsion holding him fully accountable,” they said.

The attorneys also noted it has been incredibly difficult for their client, especially when she was accosted by the onlookers after testifying. A television news reporter also followed the teen, the attorneys said, filming her distress. The news station later destroyed the footage and did not broadcast it.

“The unrelenting harm that has occurred as a part of this process, and as a result of her being doxxed in blogs and by Rep. Priscilla Giddings, is exactly why two-thirds of Idaho survivors of sexual assault never choose to report the crimes against them,” the attorneys said. “Every time a system fails to protect survivors it reinforces why survivors of sexual violence choose not to report and to suffer in silence.”

Von Ehlinger and his attorney Edward Dindinger did not respond to requests for comment immediately after the committee announced its findings.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday that he fully supports a move to expel von Ehlinger.

“I applaud Jane Doe and the other brave women for their courage in telling their stories and participating in this process to hold Representative Aaron von Ehlinger accountable for his deeply damaging and shameful actions," Little said in a statement. "... Now, the public expects the full Idaho House of Representatives to carry out the recommendation of the committee and ensure the integrity of the Idaho Legislature.”

___

Sexual assault survivors can receive confidential support, help finding local resources, information about laws and other information by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE).

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