The State Ethics Commission legislative package included a bill that would create Hawaii’s first anti-nepotism law, but legislators may have rendered the measure meaningless.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo told Civil Beat the original draft of SB 994 was narrowly tailored to provide lawmakers with clear boundaries when it comes to hiring or appointing family members to state jobs.
But new language inserted in the bill by the Senate Judiciary Committee would create a huge loophole, allowing the hiring of family members.
“The bill that the commission introduced was much narrower — and not to say that was better — but it was narrower than the form that is in today,” Kondo said.
The newest version of the bill, SB994 SD1 would make it illegal for a public official or employee to hire, appoint or promote close relatives, or give recommendations to others on the relative’s behalf.
But, a caveat in the language muddies its scope.
The bill bans nepotism with an exception for individuals who are “highly qualified”.
“I think there’s a provision in the bill that has an exception where someone is extra qualified,” Kondo said. “That language seems to be a little ambiguos and that raises some concerns from the Ethics Commission’s viewpoint as whether or not that exception swallows up the rule, so to speak.”
The term “highly qualified” is not defined in the bill.
Kondo says the new SD1 also could reach too far.
For example, the bill may prevent someone in the Department of Education from hiring the superintendent’s relative because they work under the same education umbrella.
Then again, as the bill is currently written, the problem might be avoided by citing the qualifications of a potential employee, regardless of the relationship to the superintendent.
The bill comes partially in response to claims that some state workers are abusing their positions. In December, reports surfaced that Principal Diana Oshiro of the Myron B. Thompson Academy gave three of the top four administrative positions at the public charter school to family members.
Oshiro hired her sister as vice principal of the elementary school, her nephew as athletic director (despite the school having no sports teams), and another nephew as a film teacher.
If SB994 SD 1 becomes law, Oshiro could theoretically avoid nepotism charges if she believes her family members were highly qualified.
Hawaii is among a minority of states without a specific anti-nepotism law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. About half of all states specifically ban nepotism either in their constitutions or via statute.
Hawaii, along with 20 other states, may interpret current conflict-of-interest laws when it comes to nepotism. Basically, public employees in Hawaii are prohibited from using their position to give someone an unwarranted benefit, advantage or privilege, according to the fair treatment clause.
SB994 SD1 passed the Senate and has been referred to the House Labor and Public Employment Committee, the Judiciary Committee and the Legislative Management Committee.
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