A bill that would open the door to gifts of tickets, golf and travel to lawmakers and state employees has got new life, despite the opposition of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.
An attempt to do the same in the Senate was eviscerated. But a House committee is trying again with SB 671 SD 1 HD 1. The Senate narrowed the bill to just allow gifts from charitable organizations. But the House is trying to go much further, allowing labor unions, business organizations and even golf courses to provide gifts.
The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Tuesday and chose to defer a decision until Thursday, March 31.
Some lawmakers appeared agitated when discussing SB 671. House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro at times shared sharp exchanges with State Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo during Kondo’s testimony.
Oshiro claimed the Ethics Commission has changed its tune regarding ethics interpretation and that the swing has left lawmakers confused about the gifts they can accept, for what events and from whom.
The gifts bill controversy began after a Kondo opinion barring lawmakers from accepting $200 tickets to a Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs (HIPA) fundraiser.
Oshiro said that before Kondo’s interpretation, there had never been any suggestion from the Ethics Commission that legislators couldn’t attend such events.
“I guess the question I’m having, bottom line, is that the law has been around since 1973,” Oshiro said to Kondo. “It hasn’t been changed — don’t you find it at least a little surprising that 39 years later, suddenly, there is a flurry of activity in the form of bills to try and provide some clarification after 39 years and it’s not, you’re saying it’s not due to your informal guidance?”
Kondo countered Oshiro, saying he agreed the flurry of ethics interest was likely due to the HIPA opinion. However, he noted that the Ethics Commission has always held the same stance on the issue and that just last week it rejected a much tighter gifts proposal than the one before the Judiciary committee.
“I don’t dispute that it’s probably due to the informal guidance,” Kondo said. “My position is that the informal guidance, or the position of the commission, hasn’t changed. Perhaps legislators or state employees assumed that things were OK before and did them. Like, for instance, going to the HIPA dinner. That opinion — no one asked me — but if they had asked, it’s likely the opinion would have been: ‘You cannot accept that gift.'”
Kondo then tried to supply Oshiro with Ethics Commission staff opinions from 2009 that echoed Kondo’s opinion regarding HIPA. (Kondo took his job in December.) The Ethics Commission staff frequently draft informal opinions to help legislators and state employees navigate ethics laws.
“I’m not interested in staff opinions,” Oshiro said. “I’m interested in published opinions by the commission.”
Oshiro is an attorney for the law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, which also employs William Kaneko — who is HIPA’s president and Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s campaign manager and transition director.
Other legislators peppered Kondo with questions as well, mostly attempting to clarify what lawmakers could accept as a gift and what they couldn’t.
Kondo emphasized that so long as politicians could prove that attending an event would benefit the state, there probably wouldn’t be an issue. He also noted that lawmakers were free to attend any event they liked if they paid their own way.
He said that certain leadership positions might have more flexibility in attending events without breaking ethics code as representatives of Hawaii’s government.
Rep. Tom Brower questioned the logic.
“As elected officials, all these issues come before us on all these different subjects,” Brower said. “So I would think, out of fairness, the commission would see all elected officials as somewhat the same and the law would apply evenly to them.”
Kondo replied that it would depend on the event, but that in general all 76 elected legislators were not equal to, for example, the governor or Senate president.
The amended gifts bill being considered by the House Judiciary Committee is drastically different from the version that passed the Senate.
The Senate version banned lawmakers from accepting tickets to events, with the exception of those from charitable entities holding charitable events, as defined by the IRS’s 501(c)(3) classification.
On March 18, four days before the House hearing, the “3” from 501(c)(3) was removed, opening the flood gates for donors. The new bill would allow all 501(c) organizations to provide free tickets.
Some examples of organizations that would now make the cut include: charities, civil leagues, labor unions, business leagues, fraternal beneficiary societies, state-chartered credit unions, benevolent life insurance associations, mutual insurance companies, title holding corporations with multiple parents and others.
The bill has added the provision that all gifts must be disclosed to the Ethics Commission, but the reporting deadline isn’t until June 30, well after the Legislature closes its doors.