Editor’s note: This is part of a Civil Beat series exploring conflicts of interest in the Hawaii Legislature. Read the related stories.

In the Hawaii House of Representatives, lawmakers asked for rulings on potential conflicts of interest more than 100 times.

In the Senate, however, there were only five such requests this year.

What explains the difference?

The two chambers have separate rules and leadership interprets those rules differently. The Senate’s rules are looser, and essentially apply only in cases where a lawmaker has a “direct financial interest” in the vote.

Senate President Shan Tsutsui told Civil Beat in an email that conflicts of interest are narrowly construed by Senate Rule 85 [pdf], which applies to legislation in which a member “has a direct financial interest.” Even when a senator may directly benefit financially, there’s an exception permitting the vote if he or she is part of a larger group affected by the official action.

A “snapshot” of verbatim floor dialog [pdf] on Days 26, 41, 47 and 59 of the 2011 session reveals the five measures in which a senator requested a ruling on a potential conflict of interest.1 The Senate’s full verbatim journal is not available online for the public to review, but a Senate spokeswoman provided Civil Beat with the snapshot after reviewing the record for the 60-day session.

Among the five disclosures was Sen. Will Espero’s request for a ruling on whether he could vote to confirm his son, Jason Espero, to a position on the Hawaii Public Housing Authority Board of Directors. Espero was told there was no conflict and that he should vote.

The only reasons that a lawmaker can be excused from voting, aside from a possible financial conflict, are when a senator’s right to a seat in the Senate will be affected by the question, or when their official conduct is involved, according to Senate Rule 71 [pdf].

In another instance, Sen. Sam Slom disclosed that his son was a senior at St. Louis School as the Senate debated a bill that would allow the issuance of special-purpose revenue bonds for the school.

After he was told there was no conflict and that he could vote, Slom was a little more clear in his request.

“Thank you for the ruling, Mr. President, but because of the appearance of self-aggrandizement, I still would like to recuse myself from this vote,” he said. The measure passed with 24 ayes and Slom excused.

Later in the session, when a House version of the revenue bonds bill came before the Senate, Slom asked again. He was again told there was no conflict, but this time was included in the 25-0 vote.

Two other requests for a ruling were met with “No conflict.”

Asked why there were so few disclosures in the Senate this session, Tsutsui cited Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, a 600-plus-page how-to guide used by most of the nation’s state legislatures.

In the email statement provided by a Senate spokeswoman, Tsutsui quoted the Mason’s Manual provision that “(t)he right of members to represent their constituencies is of such major importance that members should be barred from voting on matters of direct personal interest only in clear cases and when the matter is particularly personal.”

“Additionally, members are elected with the public’s knowledge of, and often because of, the members’ background and expertise and are expected to utilize such as a legislators in making decisions for their constituencies without using their position to directly advance their own individual financial interests,” Tsutsui said in his statement.

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