Friday, February 03, 2012
Hawaii Lawmakers reaching again for that giant cookie jar
by Larry Geller
This year the Abercrombie administration has introduced a bill that has certain House members salivating in public. It promises them endless and unlimited tickets to events sponsored by 501(c)3 events designed, in many cases, to gain their favor. It would institutionalize influence peddling in Hawaii.
What is it that many Hawaii legislators don’t understand about ethics?
“Ethics” in government is defined by law, it is (fortunately for us taxpayers) not what lawmakers think they should be allowed to get away with.
Nevertheless, there seems to be an ongoing tension between a large enough number of state legislators and the state Ethics Commission that demonstrates, perhaps, that if power really corrupts, some of those in power want to get their share of the spoils now that they have won elected office.
Harsh? A great example of the “we want it all” attitude was the questioning of Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo during the hearing for HB2457 before the House Judiciary Committee ( Rep. Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran, Chair). Any ED of the Ethics Commission wears a target on his back as soon as he enters a Hawaii House hearing room, it seems. Where lawmakers should show respect, instead they harass.
As has become common at these hearings, some legislators demonstrate that they don’t understand the law, some demonstrate that they don’t like restrictions on what gifts they can accept (translation into English: they don’t care about corruption or the appearance of corruptions), and yes, some do understand. Many of those who hold to ethical principles probably remain silent, so the spotlight is grabbed by the angry ones who want to grab even more.
Obviously, the ethics laws that some lawmakers don’t like today were passed yesterday by legislators who do get it. Hawaii does have ethical, caring and responsible lawmakers. Still, trying to get a “reform” bill heard in recent years has been almost impossible. Powerful committee chairs just ignore them.
This bill before the House Judiciary Committee is a blatant raid on the cookie jar, and badly written. It is an administration bill, which makes one wonder about the Governor’s motives in introducing it. Is he paying attention? (See also: Governor Abercrombie Wants Ethics Code Changes (Hawaii Reporter, 2/3/3012). Seems that instead of a “New Day” this would be a return to the bad old days.
Here is a snip from my own testimony yesterday:
This bill opens a hole the size of a barn door in the gift law. Let me give an example.
If passed into law, a non-profit organization could then gift a state legislator or state employee with a first-class airplane ticket to Vegas to attend a charitable event as long as they don't lay on a golf game.
Requiring disclosure is nice, but what is being disclosed if the gift is made within the law? The point of the gift law is to restrict influence. Disclosure simply documents that influence.
Clearly, changing the law as this bill suggests would permit endless abuses.
I also pointed out the peculiarity that the bill prohibits attendance at “golf tournaments” but not football games, for example.
Further, it contains no definition of "widely attended." Would an event be "widely attended" if 25 state legislators attended?
For legislators who can’t get enough perks each day, Kondo (as the current occupant of the ED position at the Ethics Commission) is they guy they want to “get.” They view him as the one who is spoiling their game. Star-Advertiser reporter Derrick DePledge captured this nicely, I think, in his article in today’s paper:
Several lawmakers — and some in the Abercrombie administration — believe Kondo has interpreted the law more rigorously than previous ethics directors, causing confusion and a few salty exchanges over the scope of Kondo's power.
"I think there are still some people that are interested in having it clarified," said state Rep. Gilbert Keith-Agaran (D, Kahului-Paia), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "The Ethics Commission is a creature of the Legislature. They are attached to our auditor. So if there is some disagreement by the legislators about what the law says, then we need to do something about it."
There’s a threat, if there ever was one, against the entire Ethics Commission and its Executive Director. Les Kondo is doing his job well, it seems. So they want to get rid of him. Nevermind that they are talking about evading state law and opening new opportunities to scarf endless free meals.
Keep in mind that Keith-Agaran’s remark was made in the context of a hearing on a bill that would greatly enrich the lives of lawmakers and state employees and invite corruption on a grand scale. Note also that despite the significant testimony against this bill, he did not kill it. He just deferred it until February 9.
The relationship between Hawaii state lawmakers and non-profits bears close watching. From my testimony:
Each year 501(c)3 organizations submit Grant-in-Aid applications that the Legislature must consider and decide upon. Should HB2457 become law, legislators who are charged with approving or disapproving these applications would become conflicted had they accepted tickets to lavish events from the same charities in the past.
The historic entanglement of non-profits with legislators (from The duplicity behind the SB671 ethics bill caper, 3/2/2011)
That legislators want unlimited access to non-profit events should come as no surprise. Many of Hawaii’s non-profits have long courted influence at the Legislature. The entanglement is so close that it had became a shadowy business enterprise operating within the Legislature itself. Investigative reporter Rob Perez did a three-day series that exposed the extent of the enterprise:
The Legislature has awarded roughly $200 million in grants to Hawai'i nonprofits over the past five years using a loosely structured system in which only a handful of legislators select the charities, and they do so behind closed doors without any formal criteria to guide them.
Although numerous organizations benefit from the system, it fails to adequately protect taxpayer interests, operates with little independent oversight and is so discretionary that many nonprofit executives have no idea how the decisions are made, an Advertiser investigation has found.
[Honolulu Advertiser, Hawaii nonprofit grant funding a mystery, 12/23/2007]
The enterprise was highly profitable for the campaign of Rep. Michael Magaoay in particular, according to Perez’ article:
Over the past two elections, no one in the House has raised more money to bankroll a campaign than Rep. Michael Magaoay.
The low-profile North Shore legislator jumped from the bottom third of fundraising to the top spot even though he has no House leadership position or major committee chairmanship, two roles that typically come with money-raising muscle.
His meteoric rise came after he got the job of managing the House process that helps determine which nonprofits get millions of dollars in grants from the Legislature each year
Of the roughly $85,000 he collected from individuals who gave at least $100 in one or both cycles, more than 70 percent of that support came from people with ties to the nonprofit community.
By contrast, Rep. Blake Oshiro, the only other House Democrat first elected in 2000 and still holding a seat, received only 43 percent of his nearly $27,000 in individual support from people with links to the nonprofit sector.
Roughly 90 percent of Magaoay's nonprofit supporters started contributing to his campaign only after he got the grants job.
Viewed another way, only 12 of the 105 nonprofit supporters contributed to his 2000 or 2002 election bids — before he got the grants job. The rest started giving only after he was in a position to influence who made the grants list.
Magaoay's ability to rake in significant amounts from supporters in the nonprofit world has raised questions about a grants-in-aid system that already is considered flawed by charity executives, lobbyists, legislators and others. No formal criteria are used to decide who gets money and who doesn't, critical decisions happen behind closed doors and only a select few legislators make those calls, leaving many of their colleagues out of the debate.
[Honolulu Advertiser, Hawaii House grants job a lucrative post, 12/24/2007]
Citing disgraced senator as an example
In 2009, the House caper involved an attempt to blow the lid off of campaign contribution limits (yes, they introduce something almost each year, it seems). Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu found himself the subject of an embarrassing video as he invoked the name of indicted former Senator Cal Kawamoto:
Karamatsu invoked fond memories of discredited former Sen. Cal Kawamoto, who was cited by the Campaign Spending Commission for buying votes with charitable donations, among other violations, and then tried to pass legislation limiting the commission's oversight of legislators.
"You guys put pressures ... on how much we can give to nonprofits. If not, we get busted like Cal Kawamoto," Karamatsu griped. "Every time we're getting sex-abuse fundraising letter and domestic violence fundraising letter ... He helped all these kids, and he got blasted for it. You're tying our hands on what we can do here."
Voters got tired of Kawamoto's campaign spending shenanigans and gave him the boot in 2004 by a huge margin.
So how do legislators respond to this clear message from voters? They put Cal Kawamoto Jr. in charge of the Judiciary Committee to try to legitimatize the unethical practices Kawamoto was booted for.
[Star Advertiser, Feeding off corporate campaign donations, 2/25/2009]
Yes, Rep. Keith-Agaran’s support of this year’s bill to give fellow legislators free tickets and free meals without limit is only the latest in a long tradition.
They can see Vegas from the State Capitol porch
My example of free tickets to Vegas was not far-fetched. I had in mind a controversy back in 2003 over then Attorney General Mark Bennett’s acceptance of a trip to attend a meeting in Las Vegas worth more than $1,300 in value:
As the state's top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Mark Bennett is supposed to represent all the people of Hawaii. Even though he was appointed by a Republican governor, the job of enforcing state law demands that his office be free of partisanship.
Bennett fell short of that standard on a trip to Las Vegas this summer.
In June he accepted more than $1,300 worth of air travel, hotel accommodations and meals from the Republican Attorneys General Association, a partisan organization that has generated controversy over its fund-raising practices, to attend an association conference there.
The Republican group solicits money from big business and industry to help get Republicans elected to AG seats. Unlike Hawaii's appointed position, most states have elected attorneys general.
[Star-Bulletin, Attorney general’s Vegas trip is an ethical gamble, 11/9/2003]
The trip remained controversial even though the Ethics Commission discussed it and decided it was legit.
Hawai‘i lawmakers hunger for free meals (Volcanic Ash, 3/1/2011)
Hawaii House grants job a lucrative post (Honolulu Advertiser, 12/24/2007)
Hawaii Senate free-lunch scam moves to House for vote Tuesday (DailyKos, 3/22/2011)
Governor Abercrombie Wants Ethics Code Changes (Hawaii Reporter, 2/3/3012)