Next Tuesday, seven Democratic state senators will leave for a weeklong visit to Taiwan for meetings, tours and conferences.

The $5,000 trip — for coach airfare, hotel costs and ground transportation — will be paid by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The focus of the trip is international relations, trade, energy and tourism, and the Hawaii State Ethics Commission has given the senators its blessing.

“We have determined that the acceptance of this offer is permissible under the State Ethics Code, chapter 84, Hawaii Revised Statues,” staff attorney Nancy Neuffer wrote to Sen. Will Espero on Dec. 7, who requested the advice on the trip.

HRS 84-11 concerns the acceptance of gifts by legislators.

Neuffer declined to comment directly on her letter, because, she explained, it was confidential advice.

But she did did tell Civil beat that the law in question “is sort of an appearance-based law. What the gift law says is that a state offical cannot accept a gift if it is reasonable to infer that it is done for a state action. So, one thing we look at is whether the donor of the gift gets some sort of state action from the recipient. A classic case is an investigator investigating a restaurant and he gets a gift — that obviously looks like a gift.”

To put it another way, the ethics commission determined there was no quid pro quo.

Espero was pleased with the opinion and dismissed the notion that the trip constitutes a junket.

“We won’t be playing golf and going to spas,” he said. “It’s not like a trip paid for by Boeing or someone. This is a government-to-government visit of goodwill. The island nation and our island state have a lot in common, including historically.”

Espero said the trip will include a visit to Taiwan’s Department of Rapid Transit, Department of Energy to discuss alternative energy, a coral regeneration center and a floral expo.

“The trip will certainly bring benefits to Taiwan and to us in return,” Espero said.

Hawaii’s Gifts Law

Espero said there is nothing promised to the Taiwan government in exchange for the trip.

Still, a reading of HRS 84-11 suggests it can be a fine line:

No legislator or employee shall solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, any gift, whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, thing, or promise, or in any other form, under circumstances in which it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence the legislator or employee in the performance of the legislator’s or employee’s official duties or is intended as a reward for any official action on the legislator’s or employee’s part.

The purpose of law, as Neuffer wrote, “is to maintain public confidence in state government.”

The Ethics Commission considered the value of the Taiwan trip, any official action that might come from the trip and the extent to which the trip would benefit Hawaii.

Based on information about the trip provided by the senators, which included an itinerary showing visits to government and private-sector projects; that there is no current or pending legislation before the Legislature affecting the Taiwanese government; and that no family members or staff will accompany the senators, the commission concluded there was no ethics violation.

But Neuffer also offered a caveat: “You should keep in mind, however, that the gifts law will also apply while you are on this trip…For example, the acceptance of rounds of golf, spa treatments, or other similar gifts would raise concerns under the gifts law…”

Public law requires disclosure of gifts valued in excess of $200.

On Their Own Time

The senators — Espero, Kalani English, Glenn Wakai, Mike Gabbard, Michelle Kidani, Clarence Nishihara and freshman Pohai Ryan — are traveling on their own time and will not receive a state per diem.

The trip was organized by English, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and International Affairs. He did not return Civil Beat’s calls.

Espero is the committee’s vice chairman and each of the other senators traveling to Taiwan also sits on the committee.

Brickwood Galuteria was scheduled to go as well but later canceled. It was not clear whether freshman Ron Kouichi would also skip the trip.

(The ethics letter says the trip is for six senators, not seven or eight, so it is unclear whether the price of the trip may change.)

The delegation was invited by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of a visitors program meant to enhance mutual understanding and cooperation between the United States and Taiwan.

Two other senators — Democrat Donovan Dela Cruz and Republican Sam Slom — also sit on the committee.

Dela Cruz has a scheduling conflict and could not make the trip. But he defended its usefulness to lawmakers, saying he had learned invaluable information on a similar trip to Taiwan when Dela Cruz sat on the Honolulu City Council.

“We went to meet with government officials, to learn how the deal with their trash, their recycling facility — you name it,” he said. “It gave us a whole different perspective to see how an island nation deals with these things. It’s not the kind of thing you can learn online or just reading. We had discussions and observations. This is a global society — Hawaii has to be competitive.”

Slom had a different take.

“My point of view is that is that there are so many things we can do here at home and that sometimes these trips are perceived by the public as not really being a priority or a necessity,” he said. “And I know in the case of the trips the Council took in regard to rail could not be justified in any way. But I understand this trip is more expansive.”

Slom added that former Sen. Gordon Trimble — like Slom, a Republican — filed an ethics complaint against four senators and four representatives who flew on Hawaiian Airlines’ inaugural flight between Honolulu and Manilla in 2008.

“The ethics commission said there was no violation,” said Slom. “We were shocked. They said it was done in the course of their business, even though there was no real benefit and it was during session.”

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