Thursday, May 25, 2006


Ethics / IRS complaints target embedded intern and HMSA

There are now about a half-dozen complaints filed with regard to the corporate interns in Hawaii's state legislature.

Rep. Bob Herkes not only has an embedded intern from HMSA in his office, but also one from SSFM Construction. I suppose it's possible that the SSFM Construction person works on health matters for Herkes and that the HMSA guy works on construction issues. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell to you.

Although the complaints make allegations, it may be hard for the Ethics Commission to pin down exactly what HMSA was able to accomplish in Herkes office this session. The NSA might know, but otherwise evidence may be hard to come by.

What is easier to demonstrate is that these corporate executives have unprecedented access to legislators. Every day they are in the office they have an opportunity to look and listen, learning what the committee chair is planning. Do they keep silent while there? Not likely. Would Mark Forman, the HMSA Foundation executive, be interested in talking about construction bills that pass through the committee? Maybe, but his area of expertise is health insurance. So you put it together.

The same would apply to the HECO embeds (there were supposed to be four of them this past session) in other legislative offices. I doubt they were interested in health care or construction, but their ears must have perked up any time an energy issue came through their offices.

Without these embeds, HMSA, HECO and others would be much less informed about what they need to do during the session. Their registered lobbyists can then work with legislators. In other words, the embeds most certainly can be the eyes and ears for their companies, and the registered lobbyists then head off trouble (e.g., bills favoring the people rather than their corporate interests) or take advantage of opportunities.

So far, no one has chased down the HECO embeds, including those in the Senate, probably because the House has been most wayward this legislative session, favoring big oil and insurance company interests over the interests of their constituents. Insurance rate regulation was killed by the House (they can't shift the blame because they refused to hear one bill and mucked up the other to favor the industry, then refused to re-convene the conference committee to fix it up). They killed the gas cap, leaving big oil to charge what it will, instead of improving it to protect consumers.

Yes, the House is responsible for this, and much more.

Worse, the House leadership has indeed taken the lead in legislative shenanigans, resorting to hiding the texts of amendments from the public and letting industry reps loose to write legislation that the people sometimes can't even see before a hearing is held. The 61-page gas cap amendment, for example, no doubt drafted with oil industry participation, was withheld from the general public until just before the hearing.

The Honolulu Advertiser ran a story on Rep. Bev Harbin's ethics and federal complaints today on page B6. The reporter, Derrick DePledge, sought out comment and was able to latch onto Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro:
Forman, the HMSA Foundation, the HMSA and Herkes were not available for comment late yesterday afternoon.

State House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), said the intern program has been mutually beneficial because it gives lawmakers access to talented professionals and the interns a better understanding of how the Legislature works. He cautioned Harbin against making such serious accusations without more specific evidence.
Rep. Oshiro seems to be under the impression that these "interns" spend their employer's valuable time and money at the legislature to gain a "better understanding of how the Legislature works." HMSA and HECO have had a long string of "interns" embedded at the legislature and should by now have figured out how it works. The result of Rep. Herke's efforts is that we no longer have health insurance rate regulation, hardly a "mutually beneficial" outcome. In fact, it should be reason for the House leadership to remove him as the chair of the Consumer Protection Committee, which after all, should be protecting consumers and not health insurers.

Rep. Herkes himself, confronted with his amendments to health bills and his harboring of an intern from HMSA Foundation, has said in a KITV interview that responsibility for the language that killed health insurance rate regulation belongs to HMSA's registered lobbyist, Jennifer Diesman. Pacific Business news credits the language to Kaiser. It seems that Herkes has no trouble getting "access to talented professionals" at least when they stand to benefit from his efforts.

It's a pity that the House remains so arrogantly detached from its own undemocratic behavior this past session. Cleaning House should become a priority for the leadership. Why? Well, most people participate in the democratic process only when they vote, so if they are dissatisfied with their health premiums, for example, most likely they will only speak out at the ballot box.

That may not be a bad thing.

Update: Rep. Bev Harbin has responded to the Advertiser article. Read her response here. Rep. Harbin shows she is not afraid to speak truth to power. Read it, it's quite good.

Her ethics complaint against HMSA Foundation is here.
Her ethics complaint against Mark Forman is here.
Her IRS complaint is here.
Her request for an advisory opinion is here.


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