Editor’s Note: This article is the third in an occasional series on Hawaii ethics laws. The first was titled, Today’s Disclosure, Yesterday’s News, and the second was headlined, Loophole Limits Disclosure of Lawmakers’ Income. A related article, The Big Fat Gray Area of Lobbying Laws, appears today.

Hawaii lobbyists don’t have to say what, or who, they’re spending money on.

Despite an annual requirement to report the “total sums” expended on lobbying, the laxness of the law can prevent the public from seeing which lawmakers have been lobbied and how much money was spent to influence them.

Lobbying is defined by Hawaii statute as “communicating directly or through an agent, or soliciting others to communicate, with any official in the legislative or executive branch, for the purpose of attempting to influence legislative or administrative action or a ballot issue.”

According to the state Lobbying Registration and Reporting Manual, a lobbyist is considered any person who spends more than $750 in any of three reporting periods or spends more than five hours of any month lobbying the Legislature.

Nine bills addressing lobbying have been introduced this year, including sweeping legislation that would further define lobbying events.

As of July 30, 2010, there were 280 lobbyists registered with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. That’s almost four lobbyists per lawmaker.

Businesses or organizations hire lobbyists to press politicians for favorable legislation. Everything from VISA, Inc., to Alexander & Baldwin, to the ACLU of Hawaii, to the Bishop Museum are represented. Some lobbyists, like George “Red” Morris, will represent as many as 33 businesses, but most will represent one or two.

State Requires Three Reports a Year

The ethics commission requires lobbyists to file expense reports three times a year. They are available online. The reports cover the periods from January 1 to the last day of February; from March 1 to April 30; and from May 1 to December 31.

But what they lack is detail.

And perhaps more important, oversight.

“It’s a self-reporting law,” said Nancy Neuffer, a staff attorney with the state ethics commission. “We don’t have investigators looking over their books making sure they did everything right. We’re just not staffed that way.”

If a lobbyist was spending more money on a lawmaker than he or she reported, it would likely only be investigated if a third party made a complaint.

It is true that politicians are required to file an annual gift report if they receive one or more items that total more than $200. The cost of the gift(s), which could have come from lobbyists, must be recorded as well as the identity of the giver.

However, the gift must only be reported if three specific conditions are met, including if, “The source of the gift or gifts has interests that may be affected by official action that you take in your state capacity,” in other words lobbying.

Confusion About Lobbying

But there’s confusion as to what constitutes lobbying. In 2007, former Hawaii State Ethics Commission Executive Director and General Counsel Daniel Mollway had to release a memorandum to all lobbyists to help better clarify the issue.

“Our office has received a number of concerns that organizations, lobbyists, and employers of lobbyists are not reporting as a lobbying expenditure certain meetings with legislators,” Mollway wrote.

He went on to describe events where lawmakers and lobbyists attend meet-and-greets, where no legislative matters were even discussed, as “goodwill lobbying” events requiring expense reports. But a Civil Beat investigation found at least one major lobbying organization that may have failed to report thousands of dollars on “goodwill lobbying.” (Read the related article.)

Confusion about what constitutes a lobbying event can make it difficult for lawmakers to know which gifts they’re required to report. There’s no oversight of the decisions lawmakers make.

If lobbyists and the entities they represent have been underreporting expenses – intentionally or not – the ethics commission doesn’t know about it. In the past five years, Neuffer told Civil Beat, the commission has not issued any fines.

Violations are subject to a fine “that shall not exceed $500” for each violation.

Other States Require More Transparency

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan organization providing “research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues,” most states require more transparency than Hawaii.

“Most states ask for detailed lists of how much lobbyists spend, what they spend it on and who benefits,” the organization writes. “Registration forms and activity reports also require lobbyists or their employers to list what subjects interest them, and often the designated numbers of bills or regulations they’ll be trying to influence.”

Some examples of states requiring more transparency are below. The screenshots are from the NCSL website and are summaries of lobbyist laws describing what’s required to be reported by lobbyists. The “Principals” the screenshots discuss are the businesses or organizations employing lobbyists.

Minnesota


Alaska


Michigan


Georgia


Connecticut


Arkansas


2011 Legislation

The gray area in lobbying laws has not gone unnoticed by legislators. Four bills have been introduced in the House and five in the Senate regarding lobbyists.

All aim to improve transparency or limit the reach of lobbyists.

HB637 would require “lobbyists and their clients to make monthly disclosures during any month the legislature is in session, and a report for June 1 through December 31. Adds required disclosures regarding lobbying events, contractual relationships with legislators, and campaign contributions. Requires the governor, lieutenant governor, and legislators to file their financial disclosures by January 31 after the beginning of the regular legislative session. Requires certain state employees to disclose contractual relationships with lobbyists and their clients.”

This bill was introduced by Reps. Della Belatti, Rida Cabanilla, Mele Carroll, Sylvia Luke and Hermina Morita.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

SB671 “Requires lobbyists and their clients to make monthly disclosures during any month the legislature is in session, and a report for June 1 through December 31. Adds required disclosures regarding lobbying events, contractual relationships with legislators, and campaign contributions. Requires the governor, lieutenant governor, and legislators to file their financial disclosures by January 31 after the beginning of the regular legislative session. Requires certain state employees to disclose contractual relationships with lobbyists and their clients.”

This bill was introduced by Sen. Les Ihara and Sen. Sam Slom.


DISCUSSION Should lobbyists be required to report categorized expenses, like other states? Is there enough oversight to prevent violations of the law? Share your thoughts.