Time for legislators to back off on ethics loopholes

One of the most specious arguments in the debate over SB 671 is the one offered by House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro that rules governing the gifts public officials can receive from special interests need to be loosened because Hawai‘i’s ethics law hasn’t been updated in 39 years.

For one thing, Hawai‘i’s law is viewed as one of the more lenient and would likely have to be tightened — not loosened — if a serious review were undertaken in line with common understandings about official propriety that have evolved in the last 39 years.

The coverage of this bill around the world, documented by Larry Geller in Disappeared News, is because it’s a “man bites dog” story in which the Hawai‘i Legislature is headed in the opposite direction of public sensibilities here and elsewhere.

The other reason the Oshiro argument lacks merit is that basic ethics are pretty much timeless. How often do the Ten Commandments, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or The Five Pillars of Islam need tweaking? When was the last time the Golden Rule was updated?

Our current law is based on the simple and sound ethic that public officials should not solicit or accept gifts intended to influence or reward them in the performance of their duties.

In an ideal world, that would say it all and lawmakers would exercise common sense in erring on the side of good ethics.

That they instead feel entitled to create loopholes that render the law meaningless in order to feed their hunger for freebies tells us that the Ethics Commission is exactly right about the need to get more specific in spelling out what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Suggestions that Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo could be a target of retaliation by lawmakers for not playing ball are alarming.

After numerous failed attempts to finesse the wording, legislators need to recognize that what they want to do isn’t going to fly and back off.

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20 Comments on “Time for legislators to back off on ethics loopholes”

  1. Richard Gozinya Says:

    Some might suggest the public suffers from a crisis in confidence with regard to our legislators ethics but I disagree. I think we are all very, very confident that the words “politician”and “ethics” don’t belong in the same sentence.

    Oh well, as they say at City Council, “Let’s all go to Italy and look at the trains!”

  2. Earl of Sandwich Says:

    Dave, I don’t think Blake Oshiro’s point was that the laws need to be updated because they haven’t been changed in so long. His point was that they’ve remained the same for all these years, and all of a sudden there’s this commotion over who can go to or accept what, and that seems to be falling squarely at the feet of Les Kondo and his interpretations of the law.

    If you saw the hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, you would have seen Oshiro asking Kondo why his interpretations where in direct conflict with opinions the Ethics Commission had previously issued. Fact was, Kondo had not even read them.

    I’m not necessarily defending Oshiro, but if you’re going to go off all full bore on these legislators, I think you’d better have the right perspective.

  3. David Shapiro Says:

    Earl, I’ve watched the video of Oshiro questioning Kondo that Larry posted here: http://www.disappearednews.com/2011/03/judiciary-chair-cuts-off-ethics.html

    Kondo’s interpretation is simple and correct and he’s given legislators clear guidance on what’s acceptable. The problem is that they don’t like being restricted and are blind to why it’s ethically wrong to accept – or worse yet, solicit – gifts from those seeking to influence and reward them. If they would accept their clear ethical obligations instead of fighting them, Oshiro would stop getting those annoying phone calls from his colleagues.

  4. Michael Says:

    Legislators took a pay cut and now this is their way of getting it back. Free meals or “donations” will ease their “small” paychecks.. Either way the tax payer is being burdened with the bill. By choice or not.

    From 1959 to now, nothing new has been brought to the table. We have had the same menu for years. I’ll take a Rainbows mix plate any day. Glad that don’t change.

    Blake Oshiro is also getting calls for his carefree ethics. Golden Rules may involve Civil Union in some way or another. Ka-ching 2 cents.

    It is interesting what School does not teach but what one can learn by life itself.

  5. MynahBlog Says:

    What do you mean they “took a pay cut?” The got a 36% raise a couple of years ago…when everyone else was running on fumes.

  6. kalaheo Says:

    Speaking of ethics and conflicts of interest… Mr Shapiro, I don’t expect you to be the spokesman for the new Star-Advertiser, but do you have any idea why they are ignoring a HUGE ethics story?

    Councilman Nestor Garcia is on the newly formed and big money rail interest funded Kapolei Chamber of Commerce and gets paid $60,000 to “work from home.”

    He says the fact that he is the “swing vote” on the City council and without him, rail would quickly go away has nothing to do with his highly paid do-nothing position.

    Other local news sources are reporting on it, but the Star-Advertiser is ignoring it?

    (speaking of conflicts, if I have breached a barrier between your job and your blog, please delete my post, and I won’t ever ask you a question like this again. I do appreciate and enjoy both your column and your blog.)

  7. David Shapiro Says:

    kalaheo, you’re welcome to raise the question here, but it’s best that they speak for themselves. Here’s the KITV story from last night for those unfamiliar with the issue: http://www.kitv.com/politics/27316663/detail.html

  8. Earl of Sandwich Says:

    Dave, I appreciate your opinion, and am glad that you also viewed the hearing. However, I still assert that the first statement in your blog is incorrect. I don’t think that was Oshiro’s argument involving the age of the ethics statutes.

  9. Michael Says:

    If Blake Oshiro wrote this bill, he should know better, that wording is what killed his HB444. He needs to be more specific and prevent loop holes if he wants a Bill to pass. The Golden Rule also brings back morale and Religious beliefs. Without Religion in the Legislature there is no Golden Rule and that only Gold Rules. One with money controls.

    Yes, Legislature had a raise but they still took a pay cut. That is already known.

  10. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    When this issue first came up for intensive discussions earlier in the Session through the efforts of a major non-profit trade association, I was absolutely appalled at the idea that somehow non-profits should be exempted from these restrictions.

    At one meeting, the atmosphere became so tense that I had to take a ten-minute break & eat an ice-cream bar from a nearby vending machine. Frankly, had I been carrying my Uzi at the time, I would have wiped out the room.

    I understand what has happened since the 2010 election nationally. I am directly or indirectly connected to over a dozen non-profits which lost almost $14 million just in federal earmarks that they’d planned to receive this current fiscal or calendar year. They counted on that money to cover the cutbacks in state and county funding.

    That money has disappeared so now these organizations are out shaking their tin cups at county councils, the State Legislature, private foundations, and the general public.

    Two of the organizations have actually set up businesses to general the financial support they need to provide medical & social services.

    But the idea of “pay-2-play” really pukes me out. Perhaps it’s just as well that my political train is pulling into the station, so to speak, because I cannot and will play the game under these new rules.

    Here is the proposed language:

    Ҥ84-11 Gifts.

    (a) No legislator or employee shall solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, any gift, whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, thing, or promise, or in any other form, under circumstances in which it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence the legislator or employee in the performance of the legislator’s or employee’s official duties or is intended as a reward for any official action on the legislator’s or employee’s part.

    (b) The following shall not be construed to be in violation of subsection (a):

    (1) Acceptance of an invitation or admittance ticket for a charitable event from a charitable entity, regardless of whether the charitable entity is the sponsor or host of the charitable event; and

    (2) Acceptance of an invitation hosted or sponsored by any official governmental entity, whether local, within the State, outside the State, or outside the country; provided that any invitation or admittance ticket accepted under this subsection shall be reported under section 84-11.5, regardless of its value.

    (c) For purposes of this section:

    “Charitable entity” means an entity that has received recognition of tax exempt status under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code or recognition as a nonprofit corporation under chapter 414D.

    “Charitable event” means a fundraiser sponsored by a charitable entity that is held specifically for the purpose of raising money for a specific beneficial purpose.”

    Please folks – Pick up your phones and call your state representative- especially if s/he sits on House Judiciary Committee – and tell him/her to vote NONONONONO.

  11. WooWoo Says:

    100% agreement with CWD.

  12. David Says:

    No matter how Legislators work the law so they get what they want (free browsing at the influence peddlers’ troughs), Hawaii voters will probably still re-elect every one of them. After all, many of the folk they want to get “gifts” from are the same local folk who expect their legislator to send government money their way.

  13. zzzzzing Says:

    @Kalaheo – I emailed Gene Park last night, pointing this story out to him. No reply & no story from him yet. Hope it won’t stay hidden in plain sight. People need to know what is going on & get outraged enough to do something about it.

  14. kalaheo Says:

    Thank you David for your quick response and graciousness. Thank you zzzzzing for following up on it.

  15. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    Whoops!!! ….to general the financial support = ….to generate the financial support…..

    …because I cannot and will NOT play the game under these new rules.

  16. charles Says:

    Hmmm. . . if the current ethics laws have been around for 39 years and the Ethics Commission has gone through any number of directors and commissioners, then why all of a sudden is there a flurry of contrary opinions?

    The ire ought to be directed toward Kondo, in my opinion. Unless the inference is that prior directors/commissioners were all corrupt and looked the other way.

  17. charles Says:

    MynahBlog Says:

    March 25, 2011 at 11:20 am
    What do you mean they “took a pay cut?” The got a 36% raise a couple of years ago…when everyone else was running on fumes.

    Of course, you do know that they went without a pay raise for 12 years, right? A fact that Shapiro continually ignores and, now, apparently, so do you.

    Whether or not they deserved raises, I could care less. But to constantly harp on the 36% pay raises without pointing out that they had no raises for 12 years when everyone else got raises is a tad selective, no?

  18. David Shapiro Says:

    The current gifts law is plain, clear and inclusive:

    “No legislator or employee shall solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, any gift, whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, thing, or promise, or in any other form, under circumstances in which it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence the legislator or employee in the performance of the legislator’s or employee’s official duties or is intended as a reward for any official action on the legislator’s or employee’s part.”

    There is no new interpretation and there could be no other reasonable interpretation. The problem is that some legislators appear to have been playing don’t ask, don’t tell for a lot of years. The problem is that a politically well-connected group that is by no means a charity — Bill Kaneko’s Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs — got burned. Demonizing Les Kondo for doing an honest job is low.

  19. Michael Says:

    This is a Dog eat Dog world.

    Maybe one should comment with real name and then play the game and get moderated. No ethics, No Comment. Simply said.

    Blake Oshiro screamed volumes and not afraid to Tell even if not Asked. Reason there is no ethics and it all comes down to Civil Rights.

  20. zzzzzing Says:

    @kalaheo & twimc:

    Received an email from Gene Park re: N. Garcia & his ‘part-time job’; he thanked me for my “due diligence” & says he’ll “try to follow up on this story as well.”

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