Legislative reckoning all but assured for Idaho’s Guthrie, Perry

What the Idaho Legislature will do when it takes up the matter of an extramarital affair between two Republican lawmakers will push the body into uncharted waters.

Out there, on a sea of concern for institutional integrity, evolving public attitudes on morals bob alongside still-standing-but-seldom-enforced state laws against adultery.

Make no mistake: Both legislative houses will take it up — the circumstances make it unavoidable. The matter has gone public, with legal and moral questions put in play. What the public hears going forward, and how much, is another matter. As Kremlin-watchers in the days of the former Soviet Union would recall, the first and only sign that someone’s out of favor might be who misses the next parade — or in this case, loses a committee or leadership position.

The relationship between Nampa Rep. Christy Perry and Inkom Sen. Jim Guthrie became public in mid-August. A far-right conservative blogger, Lance Earl, who ran for the House in Guthrie’s district in 2014 and is a political opponent, wrote about it after interviewing Guthrie’s ex-wife shortly following the couple’s summertime divorce.

Both lawmakers have issued vague statements that acknowledge a relationship and error in judgment. They’ve expressed regret and shame, sought forgiveness and disputed the reported facts. Neither has agreed to be interviewed, declining multiple Statesman requests. Both continue to seek re-election in races that, before disclosure, seemed pretty safe.

The leading question now, assuming they win re-election in November, is what political price will they pay, if any, for their indiscretion? And following on that, will penance be meted out behind closed doors — either by the full body politic or just their party — or via a public morality play worthy of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”?

“It sounds like it will be become public record, because there’s nothing to really argue,” said Ethan Wilson, an attorney and policy specialist with the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It doesn’t sound like it’s the conduct that’s at issue here. It’s what’s the punishment.”

The two were cleared of any related misuse of public funds in a probe that legislative leaders promptly initiated after the affair became public. Yet they still likely face ethics questions when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Since one is a senator and the other a representative, there might even be two inquiries.

Prior ethics cases in the Legislature have seen lawmakers resign following investigation, hearing and censure. One senator was exonerated but lost his bid for re-election.

But those precedents involved clear-cut charges of official misconduct. The Guthrie-Perry matter does not. Nor is it like the case last year in Michigan in which two lawmakers were caught lying and misusing public funds to hide their tryst.

How much does the public really care these days about people and politicians who have affairs? Thrice-married Donald Trump published a book that described what amounts to serial adultery, and he’s the Republican candidate for president. Hillary Clinton’s marriage has endured a healthy share of outrages, courtesy of her husband. Voters don’t seem to see infidelity on its own as a disqualification for public office.

In the case of Guthrie and Perry, regardless of public attitudes, there is potential felony law involved. Here’s where things stand, what might trip them up, and where the chips might fall.

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