BOISE, Idaho – An Idaho lawmaker facing rape allegations from a 19-year-old intern refused to answer questions during a legislative ethics hearing Wednesday about what happened inside his apartment, where she said she was sexually assaulted. He declined to do so after his attorney told him to invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
A committee will use testimony from Lewiston Republican Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger's ethics hearing to determine if the 38-year-old lawmaker “engaged in conduct unbecoming a representative which is detrimental to the integrity of the House.”
The investigation into von Ehlinger's conduct began in March after the intern told a supervisor that von Ehlinger raped her at his apartment after the two had dinner at a restaurant. The Boise Police Department has a criminal investigation underway. Von Ehlinger has denied the allegations and maintains the sexual encounter was consensual.
When the lawmaker was asked about what happened at his apartment, his attorney Edward Dindinger told him not to answer.
“I am instructing him not to answer these questions based on his Fifth Amendment rights, and I don’t believe any competent counsel could advise him otherwise,” Dindinger said.
The young intern was ordered by the committee to testify at the public hearing and used the name “Jane Doe." She testified that she told von Ehlinger “no” in several different ways as he tried to initiate sexual contact at his apartment.
She also confirmed to the committee that her statement to police — that the lawmaker pinned her down, forced her to perform oral sex and, after she moved her head away, masturbated on her while her arm was trapped — was correct.
The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.
Doe testified from behind a black fabric screen intended to protect her identity. But as she tried to exit the building after giving her testimony, some of von Ehlinger's supporters attempted to follow and videotape her as she went to her car, reported Alexandra Duggan with the University of Idaho's McClure Center Legislative Press on Twitter. Yelling and crying could be heard inside the committee room.
Several far-right blogs, one of von Ehlinger’s former attorneys and White Bird Republican Rep. Priscilla Giddings have all publicly released the teen’s identity, making disparaging remarks about her and the allegations. Giddings scoffed and laughed at times during the hearing, including when the intern’s attorneys suggested that the bullying the intern had experienced would make other women less willing to report sexual assault.
The ethics hearing isn't a criminal proceeding. Instead, it's intended to help ethics committee members decide whether von Ehlinger should face penalties — up to and including being expelled from the Legislature. Members are expected to vote Thursday morning on if they will ask the full House to reprimand von Ehlinger or take other steps.
Much of Wednesday morning's testimony focused on whether it was appropriate or expressly forbidden for lawmakers to date staff members. Von Ehlinger’s attorney repeatedly stressed that there are no written anti-fraternization rules for the House.
Idaho Deputy Attorney General Leslie Hayes, meanwhile, brought witnesses who testified that respectful workplace training sessions make clear that those working in the Statehouse shouldn’t even hug each other because it may make some feel uncomfortable.
Two other representatives testified von Ehlinger was warned against making women feel uncomfortable.
The intern testified that von Ehlinger repeatedly approached her when she worked at the Statehouse, once inviting her into his office and visiting her office roughly 10 times.
She said she hoped the dinner would be an opportunity to network as well as a chance to eat at a fancy restaurant that she would never normally be able to afford as someone who earns $8 an hour.
The intern told the committee that appearing in the hearing and all the proceedings leading up to it have been difficult.
“How do I explain that — vomiting on myself in the bathroom ... calling my mom because I'm terrified ... how do I explain that to the committee, what you've done to me?” she said about being required to testify. “I came here fighting and earning your respect. But I don't blame you. I forgive you. You're doing your job, and I am too.”
Giddings testified she was “accosted” by the intern shortly after Giddings sent a newsletter out to her constituents that made disparaging remarks about the intern. The letter referred to her as a “honey trap” and the allegations as a “liberal smear job," and linked to a far-right blog that included the intern's name, photo and personal details.
In her testimony, Giddings said Doe was : very loud, abrasive, a little bit incoherent" when she saw her outside of the Statehouse. Giddings said she called for security and went where Doe couldn't follow her.
“I never spoke to her, I carried on as quickly as I could,” Giddings said. “But it was, 'Rep. Giddings, you call yourself a woman of integrity, you're a Christian woman, you're liked — You are destroying my life. I'm just a teenager, why are you doing this?' It was very loud."
The teen had also left Giddings a voicemail saying she would “pay for her sins,” the lawmaker testified.
Earlier, the intern testified she said those things to Giddings because she was upset that the lawmaker had exposed her identity and potentially placed both her and a young relative in danger. She said the “pay for your sins” comment was because she knows Giddings professes to be a Christian, and that as a Christian herself she believes everyone will be called to account for their sins in the afterlife.
The deputies attorney general — representing House leadership members who formally filed the ethics complaint against von Ehlinger — also called a former Statehouse security guard who testified that she had gone on two dates with the lawmaker earlier this year.
“I'm not typically the person to go and meet and get with people like that. It was awkward and I just kind of wanted to leave,” the woman said.
The auditorium where the hearing was held was packed for most of the proceedings, with many House members attending. It was also streamed online.
All the attention — and bullying from some of von Ehlinger's supporters — has been exceedingly traumatic for Doe, her attorneys said during a news conference earlier this week.
Outside the Statehouse, dozens of supporters of the intern — including groups of fellow teens who walked over from a nearby high school — rallied to demand that von Ehlinger and other lawmakers be held accountable for the allegations and for allowing the intern's identity to be revealed.
Some in the crowd held signs with slogans like, “Expel von rapist” and “Leveraging an elected office for sex is unethical.”
Sexual assault survivors can receive confidential support, help finding local resources, information about laws and other information by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE).