As they finish up the April hearings into the rape allegation against Lewiston-area state Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, the voices of many members of the Idaho House Ethics Committee are raw — whether from exhaustion, anger or sorrow.
Ethics Chairman Sage Dixon, a North Idaho Republican, chokes up as he talks about how even if the 38-year-old von Ehlinger's sexual relationship with a 19-year-old student legislative intern was consensual as he claimed, it clearly disqualified him from his position.
Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, talks about the family and his past.
"We have to consider what we would want for our children if they came to the Idaho Legislature," he says. "I have a daughter. Many of you do."
After the committee suspends von Ehlinger from his seat, the accused Republican lawmaker resigns hours after the conclusion of the April 29 hearing.
But that wasn't the end. This month, the ethics committee met again, this time penalizing northeast Idaho Rep. Priscilla Giddings.
Despite all of the efforts the Legislature took to protect the identity of von Ehlinger's accuser, Giddings had twice directed her online followers to a Redoubt News article that not only revealed the alleged victim's name, but also featured a picture of her from when she was in high school.
Written by Redoubt News co-owner and self-proclaimed "Patriot Journalist" Shari Dovale, the article scoffs at the 19-year-old's allegations of rape, floats innuendos about the accuser's moral character and lobs accusations at several other members of the Idaho Legislature.
Though Dovale had later removed the name and picture from the body of her Redoubt News article, the post still prominently links to a letter from one of von Ehlinger's attorneys that names the woman dozens of times.
"That is the tactic these folks have taken," says Annie Hightower, the attorney representing the intern, "to try to smear a 19-year-old kid who was doing her job, instead of addressing the actual allegations."
Giddings, who did not respond to an Inlander interview request, has been unrepentant, declaring to the ethics committee that she was the victim of a political witch hunt and "woke cancel culture."
Besides, the Republican legislator argued in her initial defense from May, so many of her followers read Redoubt News that the identity of von Ehlinger's accuser was already generally known. It underscores just how influential the site has become in the eyes of some of North Idaho's legislators. Yet as Redoubt News has marched further toward the fringe, its tactics and rhetoric have divided not only Idaho's conservatives, but Dovale's own family.
While Redoubt News' Dovale declined to speak with the Inlander, her 23-year-old daughter, Sharyl, said she was very upset with her mother's approach.
"I know that she's not painting the victims in a positive light," Sharyl says. "It disturbs me that her immediate reaction is to take von Ehlinger's side."
After all, Sharyl has met von Ehlinger, too.
Sharyl, Dovale's youngest daughter, says her parents didn't used to be nearly as focused on politics. Her mom and her dad, Bret Roush, owned Panhandle Appliance, a small repair shop in Priest River.
Sharyl traces the watershed moment back to 2014, when as a junior at Priest River Lamanna High School, she was publicly opposing a district school levy. Her mom fought the levy, too, writing letters to the Bonner County Daily Bee decrying the district's purchase of a third riding mower and accusing the school board of "communism."
But in Priest River, Sharyl says, the local backlash to their anti-levy efforts was so strong that she had to transfer schools. A boycott was launched against her parents' appliance repair shop, and it went out of business.
Yet the experience had gained her parents a new set of right-wing politically active allies.
By the end of 2015, Dovale had a gig writing short blog posts with titles like "Good Samaritans Threatened by Muslim Refugees" for a short-lived North Idaho affiliate of the Voice of Idaho, a far-right news site.
But bigger events were coming. On Jan. 2, 2016, Idaho's anti-government activist Ammon Bundy would kick off the 41-day armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Burns, Oregon, galvanizing the extreme right.
In the days leading up to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff, the Voice of Idaho's owner, Michael Emry, had borrowed Bundy's van and driven to Burns with a stolen .50-caliber machine gun.
Dovale and Roush had taken a different route. With the encouragement of Stewart Rhodes, founder of the famous militia movement group the Oath Keepers, they launched their own website: Redoubt News was named after the American Redoubt, the notion that the Inland Northwest could be a haven for conservative Christians fleeing from liberal states.
"It was almost like a God thing," Dovale later told right-wing podcaster Pete Santilli. "We've always done everything we do because we feel like we're on God's mission."
The timing couldn't have been better. A week later Dovale and Roush were driving to Burns themselves to cover the standoff.
By late summer, the Oath Keepers' website was praising Dovale and Roush as "dedicated and tireless" journalists who "keep the hammer down full time." By 2017, Dovale was being interviewed on Alex Jones' conspiracy site Infowars.
In their own way, they'd become stars. True, on video, the 60-year-old Dovale may appear more like a sporadically grumpy grandma, the kind you might cast Margo Martindale to play, than the stereotypical grizzled militia movement leader.
But Devin Burghart, extremism researcher at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, says that in recent years, women have increasingly taken on leading roles in far-right activism.
He says Redoubt News has played a crucial role in helping different strains of extremism — like anti-vaxxers and militia groups — to merge.
"It's become a one-stop shop for so-called 'Patriot' information in the Inland Northwest," says Burghart. "It's like the Drudge Report for Northwest paramilitary groups."
It reprints articles from other right-wing Idaho sites like Gem State Patriot and embeds far-right podcasts like Radio Free Redoubt. It posts legislative updates and blogs from conservative North Idaho legislators, like Giddings and Rep. Heather Scott. Dovale records right-wing rallies and conducts her own sit-down interviews with political leaders like Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher.
"It's shocking to see the number of legislators who have admitted readership of Redoubt News," Burghart says.
On the other hand, Burghart himself has used the site to track the far right.
"The newest conspiracy of the week we often find on the pages of Redoubt News before it gets broader circulation inside the movement," Burghart says.
Redoubt News was pushing anti-vaccine rhetoric long before COVID-19 gave the anti-vax movement a shot in the arm, but this year Dovale has ramped up the rhetoric, publishing stories like "Michigan is Now a Vaccine Prison Camp," complete with cartoon syringe clip art superimposed over a photo of Auschwitz.
"I think the pandemic has increased the militancy of the site," Burghart says.
A month before Jan. 6 rioters stormed the Capitol chanting "Hang Mike Pence," Redoubt News syndicated a column decrying those who didn't fight the election results as "traitors to the republic" who "must be utterly destroyed," and featuring a photograph of Lincoln assassination conspiracists awaiting execution at the gallows.
Dovale herself wrote a piece after the Capitol was attacked, falsely claiming that left-wing "antifa" members had led the riot and lamenting that "Mike Pence has thrown his hat in the ring with the Marxists."
Today, Sharyl says she realizes Redoubt News has changed: It has become more mean, more focused on personal attacks.
"It's been very gradual," Sharyl says. "But they have gotten more extreme."
SWORD AND SHIELD
In 2017, the Idaho Legislature was divided on the question of Rep. Heather Scott, and so were Dovale and her daughter.
After another Idaho state representative's affair with an Idaho state senator came to light, Scott had stoked outrage by speculating that her fellow female legislators were being given leadership positions if "they spread their legs."
"My mother and me got into a huge fight" over Scott, Sharyl says.
Dovale didn't just defend Scott's behavior, Redoubt News went on the attack. After Speaker of the House Scott Bedke temporarily suspended Scott's committee assignments, Redoubt News was riddled for weeks with headlines like "Bedke the Bully," "Scott Bedke — JUDGE, JURY AND EXECUTIONER" and "The Lynching of Idaho Representative Heather Scott."
Dovale found a harassment complaint that had been lodged against Bedke years earlier and, without first attempting to substantiate the claims, published it in a post under the title "Truth about our Morally Bankrupt Legislative Leadership."
Instead of responding to media requests, far-right legislators like Scott and former Spokane Valley Rep. Matt Shea learned they could simply blast out their own response on Redoubt News.
Former Shea ally Jay Pounder describes Dovale as "Matt Shea's disinformation arm."
"We used Redoubt News as an offensive/defensive play," Pounder says. "If somebody was attacking Matt, then Shari was activated, and something went out."
After Pounder turned on Shea and leaked inflammatory group chats of Shea's allies to the Guardian, he got to witness the other end of Redoubt News' barrel. Dovale characterized Pounder as the real violent radical, releasing copies of Pounder's own chat messages, like one that discussed taking "a page or 10 from the IRA handbook."
Politicians could just as easily lose the favor of Redoubt News.
"It's like my mother had a vendetta against Sage Dixon," Sharyl says. "She labeled him a tyrant."
At one time, Dovale praised the conservative Dixon as a "liberty legislator." But today, Dixon is in charge of the Ethics Committee that had punished both Giddings and von Ehlinger. And today, Dixon gets his face pasted on swamp pictures at Redoubt News and superimposed over the U.S. Constitution in flames.
"I don't think his re-election campaign will be the walk-in-the-park that he has become accustomed to," Dovale wrote this month.
MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
Weathering a flood of online abuse is one thing as a politician. It's another as a rape victim. Giddings was censured and lost a committee assignment, but to Hightower, the attorney of von Ehlinger's accuser, that wasn't nearly enough. The damage to her young client had been done.
"She is now living in fear day to day that people are going to come after her," Hightower says. (While the Boise Police Department has forwarded their rape investigation to the Ada County prosecutor, no charges have been filed.)
Yet even in this environment, others — a mall security guard, a House clerk — spoke out about how von Ehlinger had made them uncomfortable.
Sharyl has reason to believe them. Last year, at the 2020 Lincoln Day Dinner in Kootenai County, Sharyl says von Ehlinger asked her out. She was only 21. He was a candidate for state office nearing middle age. He wanted to take her to lunch next time he was in town. At that moment, Sharyl said yes.
But a moment later it clicked: He probably wanted more than just her vote. She felt naive. The age difference felt gross.
"She came running across the room to find me," recalls Sharyl's friend Robin Gray, a Dixon volunteer who was also at the dinner. "She was like, 'This is weird. This is creepy.'"
For months, she says she dreaded that von Ehlinger might call her up to pursue her. He never did. Instead, Sharyl learned that another young woman had accused von Ehlinger of rape.
"It's terrifying to think that could have been me. ... This could have been so much worse," Sharyl says. "I feel like I dodged a bullet."
Sharyl says she never told Dovale what had happened. But today, she says, she truly believes that her mother might have changed the way she approached the von Elinger story if she'd known. Sharyl and her mom fight about politics, yes, but Sharyl says they still love each other — and an allegation is different when it comes from your daughter. She believes Dovale is capable of empathy with the accuser, not just the accused.
"My mother does know better," Sharyl says. ♦