Friday, July 08, 2011
Hawaii’s ethics laws badly need a boost
by Larry Geller
I filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission today, but I will probably never learn the outcome. Strange? Welcome to the murky world of Hawaii ethics laws.
Today’s editorial in the Star-Advertiser had a great lead paragraph, which I hereby adopt:
When it comes to sanctions, a low number of them usually means a good thing. But when transgressions are unreported or under-reported, or there's a lack of urgency in investigating questionable situations, a low sanctions rate signals that the system needs tightening.
[Star-Advertiser, Elder care needs better oversight, 7/8/2011]
The editors were writing about the DOH failure to monitor nursing homes, as required under federal law, but I’ll adapt this great opener to the Legislature’s unwillingness to pass effective ethics laws.
Every year some ethics bills are introduced. Every year they fail to get a hearing. And yet when violations of ethics laws that we do have take place, there seem to be few, if any, sanctions imposed. At least as far as the public ever finds out.
Does a low sanctions rate mean that our ethics laws are already perfect? Or does it mean that lawmakers are trying to preserve a favorable status quo for themselves?
Guess what—it’s the latter. And the democratic process in this state suffers greatly by what politicians are able to get away with.
Sure, we lack a Blagojevich of our own, yet Hawaii legislators, as a group, have no special claims to sainthood. It would be great if some of those bills would be heard and even (imagine it) adopted next session.
Blogger Ian Lind revealed in a May 21, 2011 article, Politically powerful state senator files false ethics reports, that
Senator Clayton Hee, chairman of the powerful Judiciary and Labor Committee, has routinely filed reports with the state ethics commission asserting he and his wife have no outside income or business interests. The personal financial disclosure statements are required by law to be filed annually with the State Ethics Commission by appointed and elected officials.
Hee has been a powerful force in the senate, and has been mentioned as a possible Congressional candidate in 2011
It turned out that a series of reports were inaccurate and subsequently revised and re-posted on the Ethics Commission website.
Good that Ian Lind was on his toes and spotted this. The Ethics Commission itself receives thousands of reports a year, and you can also guess that they don’t have the manpower to cross-check each of them. In fact, that, by itself, is a problem that begs for solution. Is it like jaywalking, which we can almost always get away with because there is never a cop nearby?
Good that the reports were revised, though Lind still questioned some aspects of the new versions.
As Lind noted, right above the signature block is the following:
I hereby certify that the above is a true, correct, and complete statement to the best of my knowledge and belief. If I have a spouse and/or dependent children, I also hereby certify that I have included their interests in this form to the best of my knowledge and belief. I understand that it is a violation of State law, Chapter 84 HRS, if information is not disclosed as required by Chapter 84, HRS.”
Have a look at the forms. It’s hard to miss this. Plus, any state legislator should be familiar with the reporting requirements.
Ok, the reports were filed, and corrected. But there have been no consequences that we know of for several years of false reporting. Not even a slap with a wet noodle.
I wrote some time ago to the Senate President, filing a Rule 72 complaint. That was denied. In other words, the Senate was not going to take any action on its own. One rationale was that it is between sessions. So what? The reports are filed after the session is over. Does that mean that the Senate will continue to ignore its own Rule 72? Rule 72, Catch-22. A rule that exists not to be enforced.
Anyway, I wrote a complaint today and emailed it to the Ethics Commission.
Now, one can argue that the Ethics Commission should have taken action on its own. Still, no one apparently has filed a complaint to request that they move on this. In fact, we don’t know what has transpired between the Commission and Sen. Hee.
Doesn’t that eviscerate the state ethics laws? Is enforcement as feeble as though this were just jaywalking?
Finally, another shortcoming of the law: I will never find out the results of my complaint unless Senator Hee chooses to release something.
That’s right. There will be no public announcement. So other legislators might think it’s perfectly ok to file false reports. It’s even less risky than jaywalking. Nothing will happen to them, they’re protected by the laws they have written.
That’s why these laws need to be fixed.
It could be done, if—guess what—Senator Hee would agree next session to finally hear some of the ethics bills that are introduced but never heard.
So strangely enough, it is Senator Hee who has the opportunity to bring about meaningful reforms to the state’s ethics laws.
I hope he will embrace my complaint as a step towards doing that.
While we are at it, the Ethics Commission also needs help in enforcing lobbyist reporting requirements. Disappeared News posted some organization and lobbyist disclosure forms that didn’t seem to add up (see here). Organizations were holding events for legislators at the posh Pacific Club (selected only because I have an idea what a meal there costs), and dutifully reported their lobbying expenses. But their lobbyists were reporting goose eggs for the same fiscal quarter. Again, it seems there is inadequate checking of these reports and no consequences for the goose eggs.
Here’s another case where the volume of paper is high, true, but the value of the law is diminished through lack of enforcement. Or if the laws themselves need revising, the legislature needs to begin hearing and passing some ethics bills.
Last example: another powerful senator has a financial relationship with a large non-profit and can be demonstrated to gain from the relationship, from review of documents that came to the attention of a certain blogger. Yet he votes in favor of a bill and serves on its conference committee even though that bill could deliver a windfall to the non-profit. Sounds like a conflict of interest? You bet. Why don’t I name names? Because it’s not illegal in Hawaii. If I identified the senator, I might get sued.
HRS §84-14 appears to exempt legislators from that kind of conflict of interest. The law applies to state employees but not to legislators.
So, our ethics laws appear to allow state legislators to take action on bills that concern undertakings in which they may financially profit. At least, that’s my understanding. I’m not an attorney, of course.
If we don’t like it, we need to get the law changed.
In order to get the law changed, it will take advocates and concerned citizens to work at making ethics a priority at the Hawaii State Legislature.
This is a very important post. Thank you, Larry.
It is incredibly disturbing and frustrating that things are so difficult to fix and itʻs usually the fixers that need fixing. Government officials have truly gone too far and their lifeblood, being ONLY money, is running out. That is a way it will fix itself but still leaves the public in the ditch, either way.
Unfortunate that the people in these positions care solely about money and their own welfare and contradictorily those are the wrong ones to be in those positions.