'I forgive you'
House Ethics Committee members listen to testimony during a hearing to determine if actions by now-former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, 38, of Lewiston, before and immediately following up to the alleged sexual assault itself were unbecoming and inappropriate.
(Photo by ALEXANDRA DUGGAN)
| May 2, 2021 1:00 AM
When Jane Doe spoke, it was from behind a curtain. Her voice was strong. She spoke through the sounds of other legislators and audience members snickering at her. But, her testimony did not falter. And when she left, people harassed her.
Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of Lewiston, Idaho, 38, was accused of sexually assaulting a 19 year old intern. This and several other statements about von Ehlinger from lawmakers and other employees of the Capitol prompted a hearing by the House Ethics Committee to determine if his actions before and immediately following up to the alleged sexual assault itself was unbecoming and inappropriate.
Jane Doe’s testimony started with her swearing to tell nothing but the truth, and ended with her speaking directly to the House Ethics Committee and everybody in the auditorium, when she said “I forgive you.”
Doe’s testimony was described as brave and courageous by members of the committee and other lawmakers. As she sat behind the curtain to protect her identity with her attorneys sitting next to her, she recited the events that took place on March 9.
Her recalling of events started with von Ehlinger giving Jane Doe cookies, then a date to Barbacoa, and dramatically escalated to oral rape.
According to the transcript available to the committee and Doe’s testimony, von Ehlinger picked up Doe for a date in his BMW, took her back to his downtown apartment. Doe’s statement said it turned into to Ehlinger forcing oral sex upon her, and then when she said no, he began pinning her arm down with his knee and masturbating over her head.
Doe said she tried to convince him she was unappealing by telling him things to deter him from continuing to make sexual advances on her.
“I was telling him I wasn’t on birth control, and I hadn’t shaved myself, things to make me seem unappeasable, you know? And he just continued,” said Doe.
The rest of her answers were mostly yes and no answers due to the fact she did not want to repeat out loud what had happened to her.
Von Ehlinger’s attorney, Edward Dindinger, pressed her on things like whether or not she can be trusted if she could not always recall when his client openly carried a gun, which Doe told the committee once, but said in the hearing she could not remember the second time. He also asked her about how she said in a text to someone that von Ehlinger had money.
Doe responded that she does not make good money and wanted some food, so going on this date was a good idea to her. She also wanted to network and advance in her career, she said.
After much testimony and Doe having to relive the events she said occurred on the stand over and over, she took a breath and tried to explain one last thing she wanted people to know. Then Doe spoke straight to von Ehlinger himself.
“How do I explain that right before I got here, I was late because I was panicking, on the floor vomiting on myself in the bathroom… Calling my mom because I’m terrified? How do I explain that to the committee and what you’ve done to me?”
“I forgive you,” she said.
After being led out a back door from behind the curtain, screams and cries of pain from Jane Doe echoed throughout the auditorium from the hallway. The committee and audience all turned heads at once- and as soon as these screams were heard, people from the audience rushed out to follow her.
They cornered Jane Doe in the hallway where she cowered, as they took pictures and videos of her. They followed her out to her car. When they came back to the auditorium, they were seen showing those photos and videos of Jane Doe to others.
This was after the committee asked the press, legislators and the audience to keep her anonymous- and yet, she was followed and exposed, even doxxed online by von Ehlinger’s previous attorneys. Rep. Priscilla Giddings during testimony even said she posted a link to an article that exposed Doe’s name and face when the allegations were made public.
When von Ehlinger was asked about the events, he admitted they were all true. Yes, he gave Doe his number. Yes, they went on a date. Yes, they went to Barbacoa. Yes, they exchanged texts, all up until reaching the part about the sexual encounter and the assault.
Von Ehlinger pleaded the fifth, something that the committee was adamant was not necessary in the hearing since the representative had already released his statements of the events to them and the public. Regardless, his attorney refused to let him speak on the stand about those events using the Constitution to protect himself.
Others testifying before the lunch break included a Capitol Mall security guard, Rep. Blanksma of Hammett, Rep. Holtzclaw of Meridian, and the House clerk, Carrie Maulin.
Blanksma testified after receiving an informal complaint about more unwanted behavior that gave a Capitol lobbyist extreme discomfort, she warned von Ehlinger to be watchful of his actions. She also said she received so much pushback from him that it made her uncomfortable.
“There wasn't an argument over the allegations. It was what is appropriate and what is not appropriate that he was pushing back hard on,” said Blanksma.
Holtzclaw echoed this, and testified that he had a similar conversation with von Ehlinger. The representative said he believed a lawmaker and intern relationship was inappropriate.
Carrie Maulin testified that she had a woman come to her with another complaint regarding von Ehlinger, but the woman was married.
The defense of von Ehlinger in the first half and largely in the second half argued that there is no written rule against lawmakers having relations with of age interns or asking other members out on dates, and that was the primary defense for the entire hearing with nearly every witness. As well as, a polygraph examiner who said that von Ehlinger passed his lie detector tests.
Dindiger cited the Respectful Workplace Policy, which has not been formally adopted by the House of Representatives. Yet, it still remains an enforceable policy regardless, something that Dindiger tried to prove cannot be enforceable if it is not formally adopted- or, like conduct unbecoming, formally written down.
The opposition to this defense mostly revolved around that there is no House rule for inappropriate behavior, because it just is- just like appropriate attire on the House floor, which was brought up multiple times by Doe’s lawyer, Leslie Hayes.
Other testifiers in the second half included Rep. Giddings, Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, and Rep. Barberi, who stated he can not cite a written rule adopted by the House regarding respectful workplace etiquette. Rep. Moon was also called to the witness stand, because she had previously stated she believed Jane Doe wanted the attention of von Ehlinger.
Moon said she believed the intern was flirting with von Ehlinger, and the conversation in the room shifted to differences between flirting and consensual sexual activity. Moon said she saw von Ehlinger and Doe together downtown, and that Doe looked like she was excited to be there. Moon flipped her hair as an example to show the committee what she said Doe was doing.
“I’m a woman. I know what it looks like to flirt,” said Moon.
The Ethics Committee took the evening to decide what they believed would be a proper decision. The next morning when they came back, they decided unanimously to suspend Rep. von Ehlinger without pay for the rest of the session and give a recommendation of expulsion to the House. The decision was not based on whether a criminal act occurred, but that conduct unbecoming occurred.
Rep. McCrostie said it is just common sense and basic morality that a lawmaker does not date an intern, and that it creates an unsafe work environment. He also shamed those in the audience that followed Jane Doe outside and accosted her after her testimony.
“I applaud her bravery for sharing her truth,” said McCrostie.
Rep. Horman said “His behavior has poisoned all of us.”
After a long hour, von Ehlinger was ordered to vacate his office immediately.
Later, he resigned in a statement that was read to the House floor, but maintained his innocence of all wrongdoing.
Jane Doe is still being doxxed online, but others are reaching out and sending her positive letters, and sending words of encouragement to her attorneys to pass on. Multiple senators and house members have came out on Twitter to show their support for Doe as well.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Alexandra Duggan is an intern with the University of Idaho McClure Center for Public Policy Research and the UI JAMM News Service.