Idaho legislator accused of ‘inappropriate sexual conduct.’ Ethics panel finds probable cause

Hayat Norimine
·4 min read

Updated 1:03 p.m. on April 19, 2021: This story has been updated to reflect new information about a criminal investigation from the Boise Police Department.

Editor’s note: The following article includes some graphic details of the alleged conduct.

A legislative ethics committee has unanimously ruled that there was probable cause in a complaint of “inappropriate sexual conduct” by a Lewiston lawmaker in March, according to documents released by the Idaho House of Representatives.

The House Ethics and House Policy Committee will hold a public hearing on the complaint against Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, wrote Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, the panel’s chair. Von Ehlinger denied the allegation in a news release.

The accusation was first reported by The Lewiston Tribune on Friday morning after von Ehlinger sent the news release acknowledging that he faced an accusation of “unconsented sexual contact” from an adult volunteer on the legislative staff. Von Ehlinger didn’t immediately return requests for comment Friday.

The legislative staffer reported the alleged incident first to Assistant Sergeant at Arms Kim Blackburn, who reported it to the Boise Police Department for a criminal investigation. Documents redacted the staffer’s identity and title but said she developed a relationship with Blackburn in January 2020.

Blackburn, in a written statement to police, described the staffer as “clearly upset” when they spoke privately on the morning of March 11.

“I said, ‘You must want me to help you or you wouldn’t have come to me and told me of this encounter,’” Blackburn wrote in her statement that same day. “She told me that she was afraid to be around him.”

The staffer told Blackburn that von Ehlinger began by “being nice to her at work.” He would bring her lunch and help pay to fill up her car with gas, she said. She told Blackburn that after she met him in downtown Boise on the night of March 10, von Ehlinger took her to dinner and then his apartment.

She told Blackburn that von Ehlinger orally penetrated her despite her having said “no,” according to the written statement provided to police. She said she was afraid to be around him and noted that “he has a gun.”

Blackburn asked whether she wanted her to report the alleged incident, and she said yes. Blackburn immediately informed House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, according to her written statement.

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office interviewed Blackburn, concluded that the incident could have violated the House’s “respectful workplace” guidelines and referred the matter to police for a criminal investigation. Haley Williams, spokesperson for the Boise Police Department, on Monday said police have an open investigation into the allegations. The ethics complaint had said the criminal investigation would not move forward upon request of a person whose identity was redacted.

House Republican leaders were briefed about the allegations on March 12. The AG’s office advised not to take action then to “prevent interference with the criminal investigation,” should one move forward. House Republican leaders delivered an ethics complaint over the allegation to Dixon on March 17. The ethics committed found probable cause on Thursday.

In the ethics complaint, House Republicans said von Ehlinger allegedly “used his position as a member of the House of Representatives to initiate a sexual encounter.” They wrote that the woman “felt she could not refuse because of the power differential” between von Ehlinger and her.

“This episode is an embarrassment to me, but I assure my constituents in Nez Perce and Lewis counties that I have not broken any laws or legislative rules, nor have I violated the concepts of appropriate social conduct,” von Ehlinger said in his release.

Von Ehlinger, 38, was first appointed to his House seat in June 2020 by Gov. Brad Little after the death of Rep. Thyra Stevenson. Von Ehlinger then won the seat in an uncontested November election.

“The allegations presented to the House Ethics Committee are serious and alarming,” Little said in a statement. “In the interest of protecting the independence of the process and rights of the involved parties, the governor’s office will not provide additional comments at this time.”

Under House rules, four-fifths of the Ethics Committee’s five members can recommend to reprimand or expel a House member. The recommendation must be made within 30 days of a public hearing or else the complaint will be considered dismissed.

If the committee recommends ousting the House member, two-thirds of the House would need to vote in favor of the expulsion.

The House Republican Caucus said in a statement that leaders “take these allegations very seriously” and want to respect the committee’s process.

“We believe in this transparent and fair course of action, and we are looking forward to seeing it through to the end,” the caucus said in a joint statement. “Ethics is much more than a word to us; it is a commitment to the people of Idaho that we are determined to keep. We will not tolerate harassment of any kind toward our members, staff or visitors in the Idaho Statehouse.”