Ethics chief in Legislature’s crosshairs again

Nobody knows how to paint a target on his back better than Les Kondo, executive director of the state Ethics Commission.

He got lawmakers’ noses seriously out of joint during this year’s legislative session when he told them that they couldn’t accept free tickets to a dinner hosted by a prominent Democratic power broker.

How dare he, they thought, and responded with a much-derided and ultimately failed bill that would have allowed them to accept or even solicit virtually unlimited travel and meals and other gifts worth up to $200 from just about anybody seeking to influence their actions.

Now Kondo has himself in legislators’ crosshairs again with his determination that private-interest members of task forces and working groups formed by lawmakers to help shape legislation can’t lobby the Legislature on the subject of the working groups.

This time they didn’t just think it, but actually voiced it. “How dare he tell us we can’t do that,” said state Sen. Rosalyn Baker.

Kondo is essentially subjecting members of the Legislature’s task forces and working groups to the same ethics rules that govern members of other state boards and commissions.

“Just because they label the group something else doesn’t mean it’s not the same animal,” he was quoted as saying in the Star-Advertiser. “You’re not supposed to be able to profit from the privilege of serving.”

That seems logical. The legislative task force that ignited the dispute — a working group on urban development established by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz — required inclusion of representatives of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council, the General Contractors Association of Hawaii and “any other interested stakeholders or entities, including but not limited to developers, architects, and contractors.”

Why should self-interested members of these shadowy working groups that exert so much influence on public policy get a pass from state ethics laws?

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7 Comments on “Ethics chief in Legislature’s crosshairs again”

  1. T_H_G Says:

    “How DARE he tell us we can’t do that.” Sounds like Baker. Les is doing his job. He’s questioning practices that are questionable. In my book, this just the tip of the corrupted iceberg, dont you all think? Of course, legislators have their trump card, if they DARE. Clarify the laws. But in a game of chicken, Les won the last round of ‘Stop juicing the system, Legislators.’ How DARE Baker attack Les for trying to make the political process just a little more honest and transparent. The rest of us small guys need to be applauding Les for his courage.

  2. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    I have been informed that I cannot sit on a working group which has been established to come up with legislative proposals fpr the upcoming Session even though I have the requisite professional expertise UNLESS I withdraw from supporting/opposing the legislation as it works its way through the legislative process.

    All of the members of the working group are experts in different aspects of the field – and we’ve all been told that we cannot serve as a volunteer proposing legislative concepts because we might benefit financially sometime in the future.

    However, I can serve on a working group dealing with legislative proposals in an area that I have no experience or expertise.
    Now does that really make sense?

    Task forces, working groups & advisory councils with defined deadlines provide a realistic and definitely inexpensive option to hiring outside consultants or additonal staff or requiring existing employees to come up with solutions & syggestions,

    David – what do you propose to address my concerns as well as yours?

  3. Hugh Clark Says:

    Sounds disturbing from Hilo. Appears to this retiree we are headed backward to the “bad old days,” First the assault by new administration on openness and now a brazen attack on ethical standards by the legislature.

    Anyone check up on state Supreme Court lately?

  4. Richard Gozinya Says:

    Hey! Come on! We have a rich island culture of benefiting privately from ostensible public service!

    I kid. Seriously, we live in a mighty small pond and we see the same frogs time and again, doing very well and doing good. While I can see two sides to the argument, I think our public/private interface is just too incestuous an environment for task force lobbying. YMMV.

  5. Kolea Says:

    Among my numerous faults, I am lazy. So let me paste a comment I left a couple of days ago on DePledge’s blog:

    I generally support Les Kondo and the State Ethics Commission’s decisions. But in this case, they are over-reaching and threatening the reasonable functioning of advisory groups like task forces. It is NOT helpful to consider members of such task forces to be “state employees” for most purposes. Rather, they are often chosen BECAUSE they are representatives of particular interests and it is BECAUSE they are identified as “stakeholders,” they are being asked to participate in an effort to reach a consensus position of the various stakeholders.

    If I were a significant landowner in a community, for example, and it was decided to form a task force of the various stakeholders to recommend policies for the community in which I own land and I were appointed to such a task force, I would advocate within that task force for policies consistent with my interests, hoping to have them become the consensus of the task force as a whole. But by participating within the task force, I should not by denied the right to testify as an individual before any legislative body when they consider the recommendations of he task force.

    Substitute “union representative” or “environmentalist activist” as the identified stakeholder if you wish.

    Perhaps in forming the task force, the wrong interests are selected to serve as representative “stakeholders,” but that is a separate question than whether task forces should include stakeholders and whether a person’s participation on a task force thereby deprives them of their right to testify on behalf of their particular interest. Perhaps the Ethics Commission believes task forces SHOULD NOT contain special interest stakeholders in the first place? If so, that is a dangerously naive and counter-productive position. We all have “special interests.” The deliberative process benefits from having a FAIR discussion with ALL the stakeholders present and WITHOUT disguising the particular interests they represent.

    Looking at this particular task force, I think it is overloaded with development interests. I have little doubt these guys will recommend, “Build, Baby, Build!” “The bigger the better!” Where are the farmers, the environmentalists, advocates for open space, recreational use, independent urban planners,etc. Even architects are added as an after thought, in the “etcetera” category.

    But as a general principle on the rights of task force members, the Ethics Commission’s position of regarding them as “state employees,”is ridiculous on its face. It will further reduce the number of people willing to serve on such task forces, deprive the legislature of their expert opinion and the deliberative process will be less thorough as a result.

    (Now if we can only figure how not to stack these task forces with such a unbalanced selection of identified “stakeholders, THAT would be helpful).

  6. Jim Loomis Says:

    This is not an easy issue and the more black-and-white we try to make it, the more frustrating and cumbersome and even nonsensical it becomes. Legislators need good input from all sides and it seems to me the public good is not served when one-size-fits-all restrictive rules are laid down. Many of these conflicts are obvious and should be prohiited, but at some point, can’t we just make sure these relationships are made very public and let that suffice?

  7. Larry Says:

    Volunteers of all sorts are treated as employees (I could be wrong, but I think it’s in statute). Also, I served on a state council. We had various orientations (including from OIP, Ethics) and learned that we bring with us our experience, but we represent ourselves as individuals. The concept that a builder might represent his company on a task force is way off.

    I have [rarely] heard during a Senate confirmation a question about whether a person could put her/his business interests aside while serving. It’s not unreasonable at all. The fact that questions like this might be asked has led me to respect the Senate confirmation process for boards, commissions and councils.

    But back to working groups. I don’t believe the public interest is served if someone is representing a usually for-profit entity on a working group.

    Les Kondo explains things to the ignorant, he is very willing to let legislators know how it is supposed to be. The fact that they want to do otherwise is a fault. As is their never hearing any of the ethics bills that are introduced each year.

    Hawaii may not be as corrupt as (say) Illinois, but that is, at least in part, because there are good people such as Les Kondo, and independent good-government advocates out there, who work to keep them honest. The bill last year would have allowed unlimited meals for legislators, staff, and public employees. Speaking of corruption! It was because of advocates and bloggers that it did not pass, not because of the good intentions of our legislators. In fact, the introduction of that bill involved shenanigans that were shameful. Yet they have no shame.

    Maybe that’s part of the problem.

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