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GOP schism plays out on Internet

by John Miller
| November 14, 2010 8:00 PM

BOISE - Towns like Moyie Springs and Coolin on Idaho's northern panhandle are separated by miles of winding forest highway, so residents rely on the blessings of technology like the Internet to bring them together.

That same Internet is now the conduit for a schism tearing at the region's Republican Party, over a four-term GOP lawmaker who doesn't think he should pay income tax and once took trees from state land for his home without paying for them.

Since Monday, debate has raged on a Yahoo discussion group for GOP members only. At issue is whether to back Rep. Phil Hart, the Republican from Athol fighting state and federal tax agencies, or Rep. Eric Anderson, a Priest Lake Republican who calls Hart "a stain" on state government and demanded an ethics hearing that could lead to Hart's expulsion from the House or his vindication.

Here's a sampling of the virtual banter: This "smells of a witch hunt," wrote Larry Spencer, a Kootenai County Republican who supports Hart, according to text of the discussion group provided by Spencer.

Sen. Shawn Keough, a Sandpoint GOP member, wrote to support Anderson's bid "to investigate Rep. Hart's theft of logs from state lands" and his "use of legislative immunity during the legislative session to avoid legal filings and hearings."

The online Yahoo meeting may last until Monday, as 31 precinct leaders in Idaho's 1st Legislative District fight over whether to pen a letter supporting Hart or Anderson in the ethics proceedings.

Tom Dillin, a Sandpoint Republican Party leader moderating the discussion as well as a Hart supporter, said he'll give them 24 hours to click in once somebody finally calls for a vote.

"Quite frankly, it's worn me out - the level of emotion is quite high," Dillin said. "Angry words have gone back and forth."

North Idaho is the conservative powder keg of this right-leaning state. Its lawmakers love their guns - and legislation supporting them. Hart has unsuccessfully agitated for years to get Idaho to allow residents to pay their bills in silver and gold.

So it's no shock that it is the venue for this latest flashpoint, where moderate conservatives like Anderson and Keough get labeled "pinkos" and "liberals," and Hart is celebrated as a tax martyr whose protest, his lawyer said, makes him a kindred spirit of civil rights hero Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.

Anderson's party controls 57 of 70 House seats, but he told The Associated Press he sometimes feels like the loneliest man in Idaho.

"I've gotten the cold shoulder, from people I'd given my trust to," said Anderson, interviewed by phone near his home at sparkling Priest Lake.

Hart's 1996 removal of state-owned timber and his income tax fight - Idaho and Internal Revenue Service are after him for more than $500,000 - violate his oath to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions, Anderson contends.

Hart, who didn't return a phone call, wrote the book "Constitutional Income," arguing the U.S. Constitution's 16th Amendment doesn't allow the government to tax wages and salaries. He survived one House ethics panel this summer, where he was cleared of charges brought by Democrats, on a 4-3 party line vote.

Now, supporters like Donna Capurso, a Moyie Springs real estate agent and local GOP official, call Anderson's latest bid frivolous and politically motivated. After all, Hart took those trees eight years before he was even elected to the Idaho Legislature in 2004, she said.

Anderson "is grasping at straws," said Capurso. "He's posturing. He wants to be majority leader."

Anderson acknowledged frustration with House leadership, including Speaker Lawerence Denney and Majority Leader Mike Moyle, for not swiftly taking up Hart's problems. Anderson may challenge Moyle for majority leader but said the ethics fight has nothing to do with those aspirations.

"Ethics are something you can't turn a blind eye to," Anderson said.

What will come of all this?

Denney said Friday he'll schedule the ethics hearing before the session's Jan. 10 start.

"I'd love to have it done before then," he said.

Normally circumspect when talking about their own, some Republican legislators are growing louder in their calls for Hart "to get his personal house in order."

"It's an uncomfortable distraction," said Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene.

But Hart's supporters, many of whom believe their man should win his fight with Idaho and the hated IRS, said he's got the votes to win when the 31 northern Idaho GOP officials do finally weigh in over the Internet.

"We're not fence sitters up here," Capurso said. "When we see something that's not right, we're going to make noise about it."

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