Saturday, March 18, 2006


Embedded lobbyists distort democracy in Hawaii

The Abramoff scandal was an eye opener on the national level, but forget Washington DC -- lobbyists are busy in state houses, and Hawaii is no exception. In fact, they've infiltrated deeply into the inner sanctum of our legislature. What's at stake is our right to control our own government and protect it against the incursion of special interests.

Lobbyists will be lobbyists, they'll probably always be with us, but they belong outside, in the lobbies. When I visited the Capitol yesterday, I learned that in Hawaii, legislator's offices have become infested with lobbyists. They have moved inside. When they do that, they are no longer referred to as "lobbyists" -- the legislature calls them "interns." Yes, interns. Like the infamous Monica Lewinsky.

I was trying to find out what happened to a bill that was to remove the sunset provision in the law regulating health insurance. This law has saved us collectively at least $18 million according to the Insurance Commissioner. I've followed one of the bills, which is headed to the House Consumer Protection & Commerce Committee headed by Rep. Robert Herkes, but not the other. I was told that Rep. Herkes killed the bill I was looking for. And now, the surviving bill is headed to his committee.

Why would Rep. Herkes kill a bill that has such wide popular support? I don't know. I did find out, however, that Rep. Herkes office has been infested with an intern who might know something about this, so I went over there. I asked for Mark Forman, but he was out. Staff did confirm that he works there as an intern, assigned via the Majority Staff Office. Now, isn't Mark Forman, the intern, also the Executive Adminstrator of HMSA Foundation? He's on their staff list. He's simultaneously embedded in Rep. Herkes office.

I visited the Majority Staff Office. It seems that there is an internship program that allows these folks to embed themselves in legislator's offices quite easily, and it's not unusual. It's a great experience for college students who can gain valuable insight into the legislative process while making an important contribution. They also get a stipend.

But I have questions: Should the Executive Administrator of HMSA Foundation be so close to the Chair of the Consumer Protection & Commerce Committee on a daily basis? What is he working on, what might he have whispered in Rep. Herkes' ear about rate regulation, which HMSA strongly opposes? I didn't get to speak with Mr. Forman, so all I can do is ponder these questions.

But tell me: if you were HMSA, wouldn't you love to have this guy working with Rep. Herkes?

I guess I'm pretty naive. I was told that HECO folks have been embedded deep inside legislative lairs and that this has been going on for years. I'm just the last to know.

I also called the Ethics Commission to find out if they have had any opinions on this. After all, an executive generally earns big bucks and has years of experience. If I contributed $2000 to Mr. Herkes (see below for more on contributions) I'd have to declare it. Or he'd have to declare it, I'm not sure how it works. Does HMSA Foundation declare the value of their executive's salary as a contribution or gift? Do they need to? I mean, look at the expertise he brings with him. On things like insurance rate regulation, perhaps. Whatever. This is no college intern, who might still be struggling with spelling, math and acne. This is one valuable person. The ethics commission will get back to me.

Here is a job for some investigative reporter. We need to find out who is, uh, close up and personal with our legislators. We need a complete list of who is embedded where in the legislature.

I find it hard to accept that a person such as an HMSA Foundation executive working so close to a legislator does not have some influence. "Access" is a given.

Of course, there's no evidence of anything irregular going on. Clinton denied and denied, but the DNA on the blue dress finally got him. There's no DNA here. There is a body--the unexplained death of a bill that regulates the premiums HMSA can charge. And I'm afraid of what might befall the second bill when it gets to the CPC committee. But there's no evidence of wrongdoing. This is standard operating procedure it seems.

Speaking of contributions

Kudos to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald for an article that looks at the influence of big money interests on legislator's actions. Remember, I'm still puzzled at why a bill important to us ordinary folks met an untimely death on the CPC committee floor. From the article:
...Topping the collection list is Rep. Bob Herkes, D-Puna, Ka'u, Kona, who took in $37,967 between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2005.

His largest donors during the reporting period included $1,500 from Island Insurance, $1,000 from Borthwick Mortuary and $500 from Hilo businessman Richard Henderson.

A recently-appointed chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, Herkes earlier this month was criticized by Voter Owned Hawaii, previously called Hawaii Clean Elections, which wants only public money used for Hawaii political campaigns.

The group issued a March 3 statement claiming special interest contributions to Herkes' re-election campaign skyrocketed after he became committee chairman.

"I think that I've probably had more than I had in the past," Herkes said when asked about a connection between his House position -- he previously chaired the Economic Development and Business Concerns Committee -- and donations to his re-election campaign.

"If anybody can show me where it's influenced me, let me know," he added.
Ok, I guess money means nothing to him... but a committee chair has an embedded HMSA intern and a bill regulating health insurance premiums is killed. Can we prove influence there? No, we can only notice that the executive has access.

Still, I'm worried about the other rate regulation bill headed to the CPC committee, it could die there, couldn't it. What do you think the odds are it will survive?

The bill is SB2917 Relating to Health Insurance Rate Regulation. If you want to keep insurance premiums low, please let Rep. Herkes know. His office phone is (808) 586-8400. If Mr. Foreman answers, say "Hi" from me, sorry I missed him yesterday.

If you think embedded executive "interns" might be an ethical issue, the phone number of the State Ethics Commission is (808) 587-0460.


Last year Lurline McGregor boasted online that she "works on legislative issues for the State Senate of Hawaii".
It turned out she was working for Senate President Binda. When I requested copies of her employment records, all that was made available was a pay voucher for June 16 - July 31, which isn't even during the legislative session when she was seen there. Perhaps requesting the "interns'" "stipend" records may shed some light on how much Herkes appreciates the intern, but perhaps wait till the end of the summer to make your request as it would appear payment can be deferred to a later date.

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