A bill hailed by good government advocates as a way to increase transparency and public confidence in government operations may face a veto by Hawaii’s governor.

The Legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 2682, which would add 15 state boards and commissions to the list of government officials and agency members required to have their financial disclosures made public. A primary goal of the bill is to allow for the media and the public to determine whether a member might have a potential conflict of interest when business they are involved with comes before the board or commission they serve on.

In an interview with Civil Beat Wednesday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie discussed at length his admiration for the many citizens who agree to serve on Hawaii’s boards and commissions and said he’s worried that efforts to force “volunteers” to disclose information about their personal lives would keep many people from serving.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie during an interview with Civil Beat.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaks with Honolulu Civil Beat in his office at the Hawaii State Capitol, May 28, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

That said, Abercrombie proceeded to talk about the bill and ask questions in a way that demonstrated he knew little — if anything — about the measure, despite the fact that it has been the subject of numerous news stories and editorials. One member of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents has even publicly declared he will quit if Abercrombie signs the bill.

“Did they write something just for the regents, is that what it was?” Abercrombie asked Civil Beat.

Abercrombie said he understands why it’s important to have elected officials and department heads make their finances public. He also conceded that some board members — he specifically mentioned the Public Utilities Commission, the state labor board and the state Supreme Court — ought to have to disclose their potential conflicts.

But he thinks it’s inappropriate to apply that requirement to volunteer boards and commissions. 

The governor did not distinguish between financial interests — which is what the bill is all about — and private relationships.

“If somebody’s looking to find somebody’s third cousin married to so and so, so they can make an accusation or something like that, I don’t understand what the efficacy of it is other than to create opportunity for people to create mischief for other people that are just volunteering their time for the community,” he said.

And, warming to the argument, he declared that women in particular will be harmed by it. 

“No doubt in my mind,” he said. “Absolutely this is going to work against women.”

The governor was asked to elaborate.

“Oh, please,” he responded. “The prejudice against women, the discrimination against women in the workplace, is rampant. It’ll be, ‘Oh, she’s married to the second cousin of the guy who’s the head of this department,’ or something like that. And someone will say it’s a conflict. Then what? Then what? I don’t think it’s a conflict.”

Abercrombie continued: “Women are professional now. Probably more women work than don’t work now, and have to work. It’s not like it’s some kind of aesthetic choice that’s being made. And it creates incredible opportunities for mischief. Why should, because somebody’s married to somebody, should that automatically disqualify them? Believe me, it’s going to hit women a lot harder than it’s ever hit men.”

The governor appears opposed to signing SB 2682.

“I’ll take a look at it, but my instinct tells me that, unless it’s written in such a way as to take that into account, I’m pretty skeptical about it,” he said.

Concerns From Board of Regents

SB 2682 passed unanimously in the state House and Senate.

The 15 boards and commissions include many of the most important, such as the Public Utilities Commission, the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the Land Use Commission and the University of Hawaii Board of Regents.

Civil Beat wrote extensively about the bill as it made its way through the Legislature, including a story reporting that some board and commission members testified against it.

On May 17 the Honolulu Star-Advertiser wrote that the legislation in particular concerns the 15-member Board of Regents, with at least one member promising to resign.

In a Civil Cafe interview on May 22, state Sen. David Ige, Abercrombie’s Democratic primary opponent, said he supports the bill. The Legislature has given the regents a lot of autonomy, he said, and with that comes responsibility. Public financial disclosure statements would improve accountability.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie during an interview with Civil Beat.

Gov. Abercrombie says requiring more financial disclosures to be made public could discourage applicants for boards and commissions.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The governor said he worried that the bill, if made law, would discourage good candidates from applying for boards and commissions. He said what surprised him “more than anything else” when he become governor was the time and attention that goes into selecting members. There are more than 170 boards and commissions that require, by Abercrombie’s estimate, nearly 1,000 people to serve on them.

“What has amazed me about it and kind of energized me is the incredible amount of public service-minded people who have come forward voluntarily to be on the various boards and commissions,” he said, expressing gratitude for their service. “They don’t have to do it, they don’t get paid for it, they’ve got to make a lot of decisions and take a lot of time.”

‘Grist for the Internet Mill’

The governor insisted that making people disclose information publicly would be disastrous.

“I know what’s going to happen with that. It will become grist for the Internet mill, or something like that, and accusations,” he said. “Nobody wants to go through that kind of stuff. Or people with an ax to grind. They just had something on one of the neighbor islands where somebody didn’t like somebody else and they were posting blogs about who the person was and all the rest of it. Who wants to go through all that kind of stuff? These are voluntary boards.”

The governor added, “I’ll take a look at the legislation. But I am very leery of legislation that’s out to get somebody.”

Abercrombie has until June 23 to tell the Legislature which bills he is considering vetoing. July 8 is the deadline to either veto, sign or allow legislation to become law without the governor’s signature.

Members of boards and commissions file their financial disclosure forms with the State Ethics Commission.

The so-called “long form” is five pages, the first of which is personal information, including names of spouse and children, addresses and phone numbers. That first page of personal information remains confidential with the commission and is not included in the online public postings.

The form’s other four pages ask for financial information, such as business interests, income ranges and property holdings, but does not include specific salaries or account numbers.

Ethics Commission director Les Kondo has said that the commission simply doesn’t have the resources to review all the filings and track whether inappropriate financial dealings are occurring or conflicts of interest are present.

Abercrombie seemed puzzled by the Legislature’s passing of the bill, and wondered aloud: “So why don’t they pass legislation to give the ethics commission more staff?”

But then he answered his own question.

“The Legislature wants more transparency? Come on!”

Listen to the governor talk about the financial disclosure bill with Civil Beat reporter Chad Blair and editor Patti Epler:

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