At his Jan. 4 inauguration, Gov. Brad Little made some promises.
Key among them, he said, was making certain his work would “reflect our shared Idaho values and aspirations.”
The new governor vowed that would mean “all our decisions and actions will be based on assuring you — the citizens — have the utmost faith and confidence in our government.”
Three days later at his first State of the State address, Little repeated the pledge to give “citizens a reason to be confident in state government, by making government responsive, transparent and accountable.”
Fast forward five months. It turns out Little placed State Tax Commissioner Elliot Werk on paid administrative leave a month ago while an investigation ensues — but kept it secret until Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press reported it Saturday.
“I can’t talk about it,” Little told Russell. “He was put on administrative leave through the system we have. ... I don’t know what his status is.”
Werk was named to the four-member commission by Little’s predecessor, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, and his term of office runs through March 8, 2021. Although he does not serve at the pleasure of the governor, only the state’s chief executive has the authority to send Werk home with pay.
“When administrative leave is granted by an appointing authority, anything over 30 days has to get (the Division of Human Resources) approval,” DHR administrator Susan Buxton told Russell. “It’s a personnel matter — that’s nothing we comment about.”
Werk is no mere government employee.
He’s paid $99,077 a year to serve as one of four state commissioners responsible for the equitable and efficient collection of tax revenues. Werk is the commissioner designated to oversee sales tax collections.
Most state workers have not only rights of due process, but a reasonable expectation of privacy. With someone at Werk’s level, there’s also a duty to disclose.
How would it be any different if one or two of the handful of top-level state officials actually appointed by the governor — such as directors of the health and welfare, administration, labor or agriculture departments — turned up missing for a month?
You can’t escape the context.
Changes already are under way at the tax commission. Little opted to replace Otter’s appointed State Tax Commission chairman, Ken Roberts, with former Western States Equipment President Tom Harris.
Nor can you ignore the political optics. Werk, a former Democratic state senator from Boise, holds one of the two tax commission seats reserved for members of the political minority. Little, of course, is a Republican.
And the tax commission has had its share of political headaches.
More than eight years ago, Otter’s chosen tax commission chairman, Royce Chigbrow, resigned amid allegations that he intervened on behalf of political supporters and clients of his son’s accounting firm.
As 2017 was closing, Otter raised eyebrows by making an overtly political tax commission appointment — then-state Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, to the State Tax Commission.
Not only was Trujillo married to House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, a senior member of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee with considerable influence over tax policy, but the couple was under an ethical cloud at the time. Trujillo’s hometown newspaper, the Post Register of Idaho Falls, had pointed out she collected full per diem pay of $129 a day — which is meant to cover the cost of travel and lodging for lawmakers who live outside Ada County. At the time, she was living at the marital home in Star outside Boise.
So why didn’t Little announce Werk’s suspension at the time it began?
Not only that, but at the very least why didn’t the governor give us some broad idea of what was behind it? How about a categorical explanation? Was it something to do with a taxpayer? A conflict of interest? A dispute with an employee or employees?
Instead, you have the worst of all possible outcomes — a high-level suspension pried loose from a secretive administration, assertion of an ambiguous “personnel matter” and an investigation that seems to be taking some time.
Does any of that enhance your “faith and confidence” in state government? — M.T.