A Hawaii senator is proposing gutting rules governing gifts to lawmakers.

The move by Democratic Sen. Brickwood Galuteria comes after the Hawaii State Ethics Commission told Senate President Shan Tsutsui that lawmakers could not accept gifts of $200-per-person tickets to a Feb. 24 Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs (HIPA) fundraiser.

The state’s rules on gifts have not been changed since they were created in 1967. But on Tuesday at 9 a.m., the Judiciary and Labor Committee will hold the first public hearing for SB 671.

Galuteria has proposed amending the bill in a way that would radically alter the intent of its two initial sponsors, Sens. Les Ihara and Sam Slom, who wanted to tighten ethics rules. Galuteria could not be reached for comment.

Amendment ‘Unexpected’

Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo on Monday described the amendment as unexpected. The new proposed bill is SB 671, SD 1.

“We have serious concerns about what the proposed SD 1 would do to the current gift law,” Kondo told Civil Beat. “It would significantly alter the current gift law and what legislators and state employees may accept under the current law. Under the current law, it prohibits a legislator or a state employee from accepting any gift if there’s a reasonable inference that that gift is given to influence or reward the legislator or the state employee in their official duties. This law would significantly amend that.”

Kondo says that if SD 1 is passed, lawmakers could accept unlimited food and beverage gifts, single gifts of up to $200 with no cap listed on how many such gifts could be received from a single entity or person, and substantial travel opportunities not currently available to lawmakers.

“It would allow them to accept a lot more than they accept today,” Kondo said.

Civil Beat revealed earlier this session that Hawaii ethics laws are weaker than in most other states. Gift rules is one of the few areas where we’re on par with other states. Under current law, politicians are required to file annual gift reports if they receive one or more items that total more than $200. The cost of the gift(s) must be recorded as well as the identity of the giver. (Lawmakers are permitted to accept a meal valued up to $25 without it having to be reported, and $150 total over a reporting period without it having to be reported.)

However, gifts 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 the case of the HIPA dinner, Kondo wrote Sen. President Shan Tsutsui on Feb. 10, in response to a request for an opinion, that “The State Ethics Code prohibits legislators from soliciting, receiving, or accepting a ‘gift,’ including invitations to an event such as the HIPA dinner, if it can be reasonably inferred that the gift is intended to influence the legislator in the performance of his or her legislative duties or is intended as a reward for any official action.”

The dinner was seen by the Ethics Commission as a “gift,” one that legislators couldn’t accept because “it would be reasonable under the circumstances to infer that the invitation to the dinner is …intended to influence or reward the legislator.” Attempts to interview HIPA officials Monday were unsuccessful.

Original Bill Sought Tougher Rules

The intent of the initial bill, which appeared dead because it hadn’t been scheduled for a hearing until it was amended on Feb. 25, was to provide more ethical oversight of lawmakers. It said:

“The purpose of this Act is to strengthen the democracy of our State by providing for transparency and fairness in the following ways:

1) Requiring lobbyists and public officials to report their financial and contractual relationships and transaction amounts;

2) Requiring lobbyists to disclose certain events attended by legislators;

3) Requiring lobbyists and their clients to disclose all campaign donations made during the legislative session;

4) Requiring lobbyists to file disclosure reports at the end of each of the months that the legislature is in session;

5) Requiring legislators to file financial disclosure reports by January 31 after the beginning of each regular legislative session.

Rather than making the work of the Ethics Commission more demanding, SD 1 would actually lighten its load.

“The ironic thing is, it may make our job less difficult,” Kondo told Civil Beat. He said if lawmakers weren’t required to report $200 gifts or food and beverage expenses, there would be less need for oversight.

Attempts to Buy Influence a Concern

Current ethics laws forbid much of what SD 1 would allow. Hawaii Revised Statutes say: “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.”

SD 1 still states that gifts can’t be accepted if they’re meant to influence. But it allows exemptions.

Subsection C in SD 1 lists those exemptions. Among them, the bill states that, “This section shall not apply to gifts to a legislator or employee for:

  • Gifts of food and beverage.
  • Ceremonial gifts, awards, or other gifts that are not in excess of (value yet to be determined) and are for informational, educational, or appreciative value.
  • Reasonable expenses for food, travel, lodging, or scheduled entertainment of a legislator or employee in return for participation on a panel or a speaking engagement, if the expenses are associated with the panel or speaking engagement; provided that if the expenses are to be paid by a registered lobbyist and are anticipated to exceed $500, the legislator or employee shall notify the legislator’s presiding officer or employee’s supervisor prior to the meeting.
  • Reasonable expenses for food, travel, lodging, or scheduled entertainment for attendance at a conference that has been approved by the legislator’s presiding officer or employee’s supervisor.
  • Tickets or free admission from a person sponsoring or conducting an event, as a courtesy to the legislator or employee to attend a charitable, cultural, political, or community event; provided that if the value of the ticket exceeds $200 the receipt of the ticket shall be reported pursuant to Hawaii Revised Statute 84-11.5.
  • Any specific gift or class of gifts exempt by the ethics commission upon a written finding that: a) Acceptance of the gift or class of gifts would not be detrimental to the impartial conduct of government; or b) The gift is purely personal and private in nature.
  • A gift from: a) An individual related to the legislator or employee by blood or marriage; or b) Any other individual who is a member of the household of the legislator or employee; or c) Any other individual whose association with the legislator or employee can be reasonably attributed to a non-legislative capacity.
  • Honoraria.
  • An invitation offered by any United States city, county, or state government to visit and observe governmental and cultural events and projects: provided that the invitation has been approved by the legislator’s presiding officer or employee’s supervisor prior to the visit.
  • Acceptance of the offer of food, a full meal, and beverages from nonprofits, individuals, businesses, and other entities at a charitable or community event where the value of the food does not exceed $100.

Despite late notice for the change in direction of the bill — it was amended Friday and will be heard Tuesday — the ethics commission said it will be prepared to testify against the bill.

“Given the intent of the ethics code to basically promote confidence in state government by ensuring that state officials operate ethically, then certainly it raises concerns,” Kondo said. “I think that by raising the level and by allowing legislators and state employees to accept many, many more gifts than they can take now, that’s certainly going to cause, I would think, some folks to question the ethics that are going on and therefore, the confidence in state government probably gets eroded.”


Correspondence

Here is the chain of correspondence related to the issue obtained by Civil Beat.

  • Feb. 10, Ethics Commission to Senate President Shan Tsutsui.
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  • Feb. 16, HIPA to Tsutsui re Ethics Commission opinion.
  • Feb. 21, William Kaneko to Tsutsui and Speaker Calvin Say.
Say

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  • Feb. 23, Ethics Commission to Tsutsui.
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