Posted tagged ‘ethics’

Legislators continue ethics fight

September 14, 2011

The Political Radar blog had an interesting item on a letter from legislative leaders asking the attorney general to weigh in on the Ethics Commission’s ruling that members of task forces and working groups formed by the Legislature must follow the same ethics rules on lobbying as members of other state boards and commissions.

I’ll leave it to the courts to decide the legalities, if legislators and the Ethics Commission push it that far.

But questions of what is illegal under the state’s narrow ethics laws and what is unethical are often two different things.

House Speaker Calvin Say and Senate President Shan Tsutsui said in their letter that legislators rely on task forces to gather expert information and that subjecting members to ethical restrictions on lobbying would have a “chilling effect.”

You could turn that around and argue that the Legislature’s reliance on task forces free of ethical reins has a chilling effect on openness, transparency and the public’s right to fair participation in the legislative process.

When lawmakers gather information by traditional means such as public hearings and workshops, everything is in the open and everybody gets their say.

When the information gathering is turned over to “experts” on shadowy task forces, the chosen few who are appointed have special access to legislators’ ears and everybody else is excluded from having a voice in a key part of the decision-making.

When the “experts” given exclusive access to legislators’ ears are paid lobbyists on the issue and often contributors to lawmakers’ campaigns, we have an ethics problem.

Say and Tsutsui contend that the Ethics Commission’s stance denies lobbyists and their employers their “constitutional right to petition government.”

That’s nonsense. They can petition government by writing letters and testifying at hearings like everybody else; they just don’t get privileged access.

An example of the problem is the task force that ignited the dispute — a panel on urban development formed by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz that required inclusion 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.”

There was no required representation from the large part of the community that favors less development rather than more.

I said in a column that the membership list looks more like campaign donors dividing up the spoils than “experts,” and it invites shady dealings to allow such a group to operate without ethical restrictions.


New twists in teachers contract dispute

August 18, 2011

The state Ethics Commission is likely to take more flak from high places for its advisory ruling that led Sesnita Moepono, one of three members of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, to withdraw from the prohibited practices case involving the Hawaii State Teachers Association contract.

The ethics determination was pretty much a no-brainer; Moepono’s husband is a student services coordinator in the DOE and a member of HSTA, giving her a direct financial interest in the outcome of the union’s attempt to overturn a state-imposed contract that hits members with 5-percent pay cuts and increased medical premiums.

Moepono has been open about the conflict and her integrity is not in question, but the ethics law is clear: “No employee shall take any official action directly affecting … a business or other undertaking in which he has a substantial financial interest.”

With Moepono recused, the remaining board members, Chairman Jim Nicholson and Rock Ley, will decide the case.

The three members are appointed with one representing management, one representing labor and the other representing the public. Ironically, Moepono was appointed by Abercrombie as the management representative, while Ley is the labor representative and Nicholson the public representative.

Hearings on the prohibited practices case were supposed to start this week, but got sidetracked by HSTA’s complaint that Abercrombie and the DOE engaged in improper ex parte communication with the board.

Nicholson and Ley rejected that complaint today and rescheduled the start of hearings on the main complaint for Aug. 25.

Les Kondo strikes again

August 11, 2011

Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo will likely have an even bigger target on his back with state legislators after he shot down a posh dinner well-heeled special interests planned for Hawai‘i lawmakers attending the National Conference of State Legislators in San Antonio.

According to the Hawaii Reporter, the event was cancelled after Kondo advised hosts that the value of the meal exceeded the $25 limit set by the ethics law on what legislators can accept.

Sponsors of the dinner included the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, Outrigger Enterprises, Hawaii Medical Services Association, Island Insurance, Coca Cola and the law firm of Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel.

Lawmakers will no doubt be furious, as they were earlier in the year when a similar determination by Kondo kept them away from a dinner sponsored by a prominent Democratic power broker.

They tried during this year’s session to counter the Ethics Commission’s tough stand by passing a bill that would have allowed legislators and other state employees to freely accept and even solicit meals, travel and other gifts worth up to $200 from special interests seeking to influence them.

Kondo deserves credit for standing firm in enforcing laws protecting the public against the buying and selling of official influence. Wealthy private interests shouldn’t be able to use expensive freebies to gather and indoctrinate lawmakers in a way ordinary citizens can’t.

Some legislators are clearly gunning for Kondo — they barely allowed him to speak at one House Judiciary Committee hearing — but hopefully ethics commissioners will resist the pressure and back him up like the Campaign Spending Commission did with Bob Watada a decade ago.

If they do, Kondo and the commission have the potential to give a backbone to loosely applied ethics rules in the same way Watada did with campaign fundraising.

Ethics chief in Legislature’s crosshairs again

August 4, 2011

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?

Legislators give up their fight for freebies — for now

April 1, 2011

Every year, the Legislature seems to have an issue that drains its energy with negative vibes — all to no avail in the end.

In 2011, it was SB 671, a gutted ethics bill that attempted to expand the freebies legislators could receive from special interests. It finally met an inglorious death yesterday with a deferral motion in the House Judiciary Committee.

It started when lawmakers’ noses got out of joint after the state Ethics Commission said they couldn’t accept free tickets to a dinner sponsored by a politically connected group with all kinds of interests before the Legislature.

The ruling was a fair reading of the 39-year-old gifts law, which bars legislators and other state officials from accepting freebies that can reasonably be inferred as intended to influence or reward them in the performance of their duties.

The first salvo by Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria would have gutted gift limits and allowed legislators to accept — or even solicit — dinners, trips and other gifts worth up to $200 from just about any special interest.

The bill whittled down by the Judiciary Committee and passed by the Senate was the most benign version offered, limiting the freebies to fundraising events of IRS 501(c)3 organizations (public charities and private foundations).

Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee said he’d abandoned the measure if the Ethics Commission opposed, promising, “Let me say that if the Ethics Commission decides this is a no-go, the chair of the committee will concur that it is a no-go.”

Assuming Hee was good to his word, the bill was dead when the Ethics Commission voted 3-1 to oppose it, but the House pushed ahead with its own version that restored all of the worst aspects of the original Senate bill by opening the door for business organizations, labor unions, trade associations and even foreign governments to ply them with gifts.

Though the House finally gave in to overwhelming public opposition and killed the bill, there’s no sign that lawmakers took any lesson as to what was wrong with it. The betting here is that it’ll be back in some future session when they find the timing more advantageous.

Time for legislators to back off on ethics loopholes

March 25, 2011

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.

Legislators fight for the right to freeload (cont’d)

March 23, 2011

The one thing you can count on with our Legislature is that bad ideas never die, especially when it comes to legislators taking care of themselves.

So it is with SB 671, a shameless attempt by lawmakers to render themselves ethically free to accept gifts, travel and free meals from those seeking to buy their favor.

The original version drafted by Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria would have allowed legislators and other public officials 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.

After a public outcry, the version that passed the Senate was stripped down to limit the gifts lawmakers could accept to free tickets to fundraisers of IRS 501(c)(3) organizations (public charities and private foundations).

The state Ethics Commission voted last week to oppose even that, noting that charities have business before the Legislature and if lawmakers want to attend their functions they can pay their own way like everybody else.

When the bill got to the House, Majority Leader Blake Oshiro amended it again to throw travel and other gifts back into the mix of allowable freebies and expand the definition of “charities” that could gift legislators to once again include nominally nonprofit lobbying organizations, labor unions, trade associations and business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors.

“Invitations could be accepted even where it reasonably could be inferred that the invitation is offered to influence or reward the legislator or state employee,” said Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo.

The Ethics Commission interprets current law to bar meals and gifts worth more than $25 in the absence of a clear public benefit.

Oshiro’s main motivation for loosening the rules seems to be that he’s tired of fielding calls from ethically challenged colleagues whining that they can’t have their freebies. Poor babies.

The House Judiciary Committee put off further consideration until next week.

Senators fight for the right to freeload

March 8, 2011

Update: Final reading on SB 671 was delayed 48 hours after the Senate amended it again today to limit the free tickets public officials can accept to fundraisers of IRS 501(c)(3) organizations (public charities and private foundations). Language was deleted that would have also allowed free admission to events sponsored by non-charitable tax-exempt groups such as chambers of commerce, trade associations and labor unions.


The hearty appetite of Hawai‘i legislators for free meals and other goodies is an issue that won’t seem to die this session.

Common Cause put out an alert that a new version of SB 671, which it dubs the “Gifts Law,” is up for final reading in the Senate today.

The latest draft strips out language that would have allowed lawmakers and other public officials to accept or even solicit gifts worth up to $200 from just about anybody seeking to influence their actions.

But the new version would still allow legislators to accept free admission to charitable events, even if the provider of the gift isn’t the host of the event.

Presumably, the freebies would apply not only to the ubiquitous fundraising dinners, but also to charitable events such as golf tournaments, wine tastings and fashion shows.

And the legislation broadly defines a “charitable entity” to go well beyond the social service organizations we usually think of charities to include business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, trade associations and labor unions — all of which have lobbying interests before the Legislature that are far from charitable.

It’s a back door that allows special interests of virtually all kinds to wine and dine legislators from whom they are seeking officials favors, and there’s no credible argument that it’s in the public interest to allow such freebies to be offered or accepted.

Also difficult to swallow is the aversion our lawmakers have to paying their own way into charitable events like everybody else.

It doesn’t even have to come out of their own pockets; they pushed a campaign spending law amendment a few years years ago to allow elected officials to cover charitable donations from their campaign funds.

Hawai‘i lawmakers hunger for free meals

March 1, 2011

Ethics laws governing Hawai‘i public officials are so lax that I didn’t think further loosening was possible.

But cutting themselves ethical slack is one of our legislators’ special areas of creativity, and they’ve done it again with a bill up for hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 9 a.m. today that would allow lawmakers and other state officials to accept wining and dining from special interests with virtual impunity.

The original version of SB 671, introduced by Democratic Sen. Les Ihara and Republican Sen. Sam Slom, was a noble attempt to tighten reporting requirements on those who seek to influence legislators by requiring monthly disclosures from lobbyists and their clients when the Legislature is in session.

The amended version being heard today is a gut-and-replace job that weakens a current law barring acceptance of any gift intended to influence or reward official action with a more liberal rule that allows gifts of up to $200 from special interests, even if they are intended to influence and reward.

The amended measure allows legislators to accept and even solicit from lobbying interests food and beverages, travel and free tickets to charity, cultural, political or community events.

It’s pretty pathetic when our senators’ brightest idea for better government in the public interest is more freebies for themselves.

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