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ID Democrat, GOP Ethics Panelists Split on Charges

Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Ethics Panel on Tuesday were split over pursuing allegations that Sen. Monty Pearce broke ethics rules by not adequately disclosing he's leased land to a gas exploration company before voting on measures affecting the industry.

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Ethics Panel on Tuesday were split over pursuing allegations that Sen. Monty Pearce broke ethics rules by not adequately disclosing he's leased land to a gas exploration company before voting on measures affecting the industry.

The panel did schedule a third day of hearings at 9 a.m. Wednesday, to resolve Democrats' questions including whether Pearce, R-New Plymouth, got sweetheart lease deals from Snake River Oil & Gas on his land in western Idaho's Payette County.

Pearce has denied wrongdoing.

Republican Sen. Jim Hammond conceded that Pearce could have avoided questions of his integrity if he had disclosed his leases before a bill to restrict local control over the industry reached a final Senate vote last week.

Still, Hammond doubts Pearce's agreement with Snake River Oil & Gas, struck last November, represents a classic conflict of interest because he isn't likely to reap direct financial gain from passage of the bill.

"The gain he could achieve as a result of that bill is purely speculative and it's a gain that could be gained by hundreds of other lessees or possible lessees within that class," Hammond said, adding "from a public perception point of view, Sen. Pearce would have been well served to have disclosed."

According to Senate rules, a senator who has a conflict of interest must disclose it to the presiding officer or the chamber before the legislator can vote.

Last Wednesday, just before the final vote on House Bill 464, Pearce disclosed he had natural gas leases on his property dating back to the 1980s.

Pearce's disclosure didn't include details about his latest lease, struck in November 2011.

Democrats contend that he should have disclosed his interests much earlier, during committee hearings on numerous measures before the 2012 Legislature governing the gas industry.

They contend that House Bill 464 includes provisions governing activities like fracking to stimulate gas production that could result in higher yields — and corresponding financial benefit to property owners like Pearce who have agreed to work with gas companies.

"Somebody who has a conflict of interest has divided loyalties," Senate Assistant Minority Leader Les Bock, D-Boise, told the panel. "It's my opinion that Sen. Pearce had a conflict he did not disclose."

Meanwhile, Democratic Ethics Committee members Sens. Elliot Werk, of Boise, and Diane Bilyeu, of Pocatello, had lingering questions about whether Pearce entered into lease agreements that are richer than those Snake River Oil & Natural Gas struck with other property owners in western Idaho where the company is exploring.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, agreed to schedule a third day of hearings, to give Senate staffers time to gather as many as 20 or 30 oil leases, so the panel can scrutinize whether Pearce has gotten a sweetheart deal making his stake in the measure passing the Legislature more lucrative than for others.

"We'll...try our best to obtain other leases and perhaps somebody with some expertise" to interpret whether Pearce's lease is better than those others have struck, Mortimer said.

Suzanne Budge, a Snake River Oil & Gas lobbyist, said the company was collecting leases offered to Pearce's neighbors, to demonstrate terms of his agreements were virtually identical.

Pearce didn't speak during Tuesday's hearing.

But his attorney, Charles Peterson, told the panel he didn't believe Pearce's interests in the natural gas project met the legal definition of a conflict of interest, in part because his agreement with Snake River Oil & Gas entitles Pearce to nothing more than others in the region with similar leases, the Boise-based attorney said.

Peterson also contended that Senate rules don't require any disclosure of potential conflicts in committees.

In fact, Peterson said Pearce went "above and beyond" his disclosure obligation when he spoke up last Wednesday.

"In an act of political theater masquerading as an ethics complaint, the complainants have unjustly attempted to make an example of my client," Peterson said. "However, their allegations are not supported by fact, are inconsistent with both Idaho law and Senate rule and are riddled with factual errors."

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