In Hawaii, we have rules. But we don’t always follow them.

Case in point is what I learned about how the Hawaii Ethics Commission handled the mandatory financial disclosure statement filing from William Aila Jr., Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s nominee to run the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

An investigation of a possible conflict of interest revealed by a Big Island newspaper led me to the Ethics Commission Monday. What I discovered was that Aila failed to file his statement on time and that he may not be alone.

A review of the commission’s website shows that disclosure filings for other Cabinet-level appointees — Chief of Staff Amy Asselbaye, Attorney General David Louie, Commerce and Consumer Affairs Director Kealii Lopez, Hawaiian Home Lands Director Alapaki Nahale-a, Public Safety Director Jodie Maesaka-Hirata and Transportation Director Glenn Okimoto, just to name a few — aren’t yet available for public review.

They may well have been submitted, but not posted online.

That’s what new Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo said was probably the case with Aila.

But after this reporter starting asking questions about it, Kondo discovered Aila’s form wasn’t turned in until this week, more than a month after it was due.

I was curious about Aila’s financial disclosure statement because he told me Saturday after a confirmation hearing that he didn’t believe there was a conflict of interest when he testified on a bill that would ban aquarium fishing in state waters without disclosing to the committee that he had an aquarium fishing permit.

On Monday, I contacted the Hawaii State Ethics Commission to ask whether Aila should have disclosed his permits and if his testimony represented a conflict of interest. Kondo said he had no comment.

Kondo pointed to Section 84-14 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes, which prohibits state officials from taking any official action that would directly affect any business in which they have a “substantial financial interest.”

What exactly is a “substantial” financial interest? That’s not made plain in the statute, and Kondo said he doesn’t believe the commission has established a hard dollar figure as the tipping point for what’s substantial and what isn’t. In the past, it’s been evaluated on a case-by-case basis, he said.

One way to determine if there’s a substantial interest is to review an official’s financial disclosure form.

When I searched for Aila’s statement, nothing popped up on the Ethics Commission’s website even though he was required by law to submit one within 30 days of his appointment in late 2010.

Kondo said Tuesday he was confident that was because it hadn’t been posted online yet due to a backlog of new filings. But when he went to look for it, he realized it hadn’t been received — even though the commission sent Aila a reminder after he was appointed and set a deadline of Jan. 12.

“Please also note that failure to file a financial disclosure statement as required by law constitutes a violation of the State Ethics Code,” the Dec. 13 memo warned Aila. Violations result in a $50 fine, plus $10 per day after 10 days after the deadline. That would add up to nearly $300 for Aila.

Kondo said any decision on a fine would be up to the Ethics Commission, not him, but that limited commission resources might relegate the matter to less-than-top-priority status. But he said the commission would not be giving out a “free pass” unless there’s a legitimate excuse.

The excuse in this case, according to Kondo, is that the completed disclosure statement had been sitting on a DLNR staffer’s desk since Aila signed it on Jan. 2. The statement was delivered to the commission on Tuesday, Kondo said, after he asked for it when he couldn’t find it to respond to Civil Beat’s request.

But the version that Aila allegedly completed in early January was not provided to Civil Beat because it included exact dollar amounts rather than ranges, according to Kondo. Asked if the version with dollar amounts was a public record that could be released, Kondo, formerly the head of the Office of Information Practices, acknowledged it was and it could be. Other disclosures available on the site have exact dollar amounts.

But rather than make the public document public, Kondo contacted Aila to warn him the exact dollar amounts aren’t required. Aila signed and submitted a new version Wednesday — this time with ranges instead.

(It’s possible that Aila included the exact figures because in his former position as Waianae Small Boat Harbormaster, any financial disclosures would have been confidential. Only disclosures from certain high-ranking officials are made public.)

Aila’s revised statement reveals that he earned less than $1,000 in 2010 from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in exchange for providing a cultural briefing, required for permit approval for the Papahaunaumoikuakea National Marine Monument.

The statement also shows that Aila and his wife are 50-50 partners in Aila Enterprises, a company that deals in consulting on Native Hawaiian issues as well as plant nursery sales and, perhaps most interestingly, commercial fishing. The value of that ownership stake isn’t disclosed.

Aila told me Saturday he hasn’t aquarium fished in more than five years, and hasn’t gone commercial fishing in three or four years. I filed an information request with DLNR to obtain, among other things, any reports filed pursuant to Aila’s aquarium and commercial fishing permits.

The story isn’t over. But what it shows so far is the way the current executive director of the Ethics Commission is enforcing the rules.

If you’re interested, here’s Aila’s updated disclosure statement provided to Civil Beat and posted on the commission’s website Wednesday:

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