The flap over Honolulu City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia’s $60,000 a year contract raised questions about what politicians should be required to disclose to the public.

The federal government requires representatives in Congress to disclose the most information. Everything from travel, to gifts, to business ties to compensation are filed in a a single financial disclosure annually.

Hawaii and Honolulu have less strict rules. But the state provides a little more detail in defining what the public must know. Perhaps the most glaring lack of transparency is the fact that the city does not post financial disclosures online. Anyone can access them, but the burden of having to visit the city Ethics Commission creates a barrier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of gray area in ethics laws. For example, state lawmakers are required to ask for conflict of interest rulings if they believe there’s a possible conflict. But lawmakers who may also be attorneys have the attorney-client privilege, which bars them from exposing a relationship.

You see the problem.

There are ethics commissions that have been created specifically to help politicians wade through ethics laws. But the existence of a commission does not necessarily guarantee a complete grasp of the rules.

For a snapshot of disclosure rules at the city, state and federal level, Civil Beat compiled the following information:

Honolulu

Honolulu’s public disclosure laws are the least defined of the three branches of government. City Ethics Commission Executive Director Charles Totto told Civil Beat the laws pertain to about 500 city employees and officials. Financial disclosures are required to be submitted to the ethics commission annually and are not posted online.

All of Honolulu’s disclosure rules are contained in the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu. Article XI, “Standards of Conduct,” lists four disclosure-related laws. They include:

  • Section 11-101Declaration of Policy — This law gives the general thrust of the city on ethics. It says: “Elected and appointed officers and employees shall demonstrate by their example the highest standards of ethical conduct, to the end that the public may justifiably have trust and confidence in the integrity of government.”

  • Section 11-102 and Section 11-103 — Conflict of Interest — These laws outline what constitutes a “conflict of interest” and the process for disclosure. Of note, using the example of the City Council, even when there is a declared conflict of interest, members can still vote on the conflicting issue.

The ordinance says that no city official or employee may, “Solicit or accept any gift, directly or indirectly, whether in the form of money, loan, gratuity, favor, service, 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 officer or employee in the performance of such person’s official duties.”

If there is a perceived conflict, public officers and employees must make a full disclosure in writing to the person’s “appointing authority” (their boss), or to the council for council members, as well as the ethics commission “at any time such conflict becomes apparent.”

The disclosures must be made public record and filed with the city clerk. Specifically for council members, any conflict of interest must “be made a matter of public record prior to the taking of any vote on such proposal.” (It’s not clear how Garcia justifies voting on rail issues since he took a consulting job with the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce in 2009 without disclosing the relationship.)

  • Section 11-106Penalties and Disciplinary Actions — This ordinance dictates how officials and employees may be punished for breaking the rules. With recommendation from the ethics commission, the city council or appointing authority may, “reprimand, put on probation, demote, suspend or discharge an employee found to have violated the standards of conduct…” However, city councilors can face impeachment. The law states: “The failure to comply with or any violation of the standards of conduct established by
    this article of the charter or by ordinance shall be grounds for impeachment of elected officers
    and for the removal from office or from employment of all other officers and employees.”

Hawaii

Hawaii’s disclosure rules are defined under Chapter 84 of Hawaii Revised Statutes.

“This chapter shall be liberally construed to promote high standards of ethical conduct in state government,” is the umbrella phase that state disclosure rules fall under. Disclosure-related laws include:

  • 84-11Gifts — This statute discusses what gifts can, and cannot, be accepted by state employees and politicians. Essentially, lawmakers and employees are forbidden from accepting any gift, in any form, that can be reasonably inferred to be given to influence their duties or decisions.

State Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo has said that “gifts of aloha” can be accepted. These would include, for example, a lei, or a small plate lunch. However, pricey dinners and more flamboyant gestures can not be accepted.

  • 84-11.5Gift Disclosure — State lawmakers and employees are required to to file gift disclosures with the ethics commission. These are posted online for public consumption.

The source of the gift, a description of the gift, a “good faith” estimate of the gift and the date received are all required to be disclosed.

The first provision in the statute says legislators, employees, spouses or dependent children are required to report gifts in the aggregate of $200, no matter the form of the gift.

But, at least one ethics commission executive director in the past has said any gift in excess of $25 should be reported.

  • 84-14 — Conflict of Interest — The statute says that no state employee shall take any official action affecting: “(1) A business or other undertaking in which he has a substantial financial interest; or (2) A private undertaking in which he is engaged as legal counsel, advisor, consultant, representative, or other agency capacity.”

Regarding votes, lawmakers are required to stand and ask either the Speaker of the House or the Senate President for a ruling each time there is a vote with a potential conflict. Past Civil Beat reporting has found that often, when lawmakers ask for a conflict of interest ruling, they are permitted to vote on the issue.

Verbal disclosure is the only requirement of lawmakers when dealing with a conflict of interest, and that is defined by Legislature rules, not statute.

  • 84-17Requirements of Disclosure — This statute defines the rules for financial disclosures. They are required between January 1 and May 31 annually, or within 30 days of being elected to public office.

Disclosures are public documents filed with the ethics commission and available for viewing online.

All sources and amounts of income greater than $1,000 are required to be disclosed; The amounts and identities of all beneficial interests valued at $5,000 or more must be disclosed; All officerships, directorships, trusteeships or other fiduciary relationships with businesses must be disclosed; Each creditor who is owed $3,000 or more must be disclosed; and the street address and value of any real property owned that has a value of $10,000 or more.

Individual clients of state employees and lawmakers do not have to be disclosed, unless the client is personally represented by the lawmaker before a state agency for compensation.

Failure to file a financial disclosure within the reporting period results in a $50 fine. Additional nominal fines can be added if the disclosure continues to fail to be filed.

The ethics commission retains all financial disclosures for six years after they are filed.

Federal

The Federal Committee on Ethics monitors disclosure rules in Congress. Federal laws are strict, with both statutes and congressional rules clarifying gifts, travel, campaign activity, etc. Some of the specific disclosure rules follow:

  • Chapter 5, House Ethics ManualOutside Employment — Within three days of negotiations or an agreement for future employment or compensation, a lawmaker must inform the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct of the move.

Additionally, members must recuse themselves from “any matter in which there is a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict,” and notify the Standards Committee in writing about the recusal.

  • House Rule 25Travel — A member is allowed to have one relative travel with them on official duties, providing that the relative is paid for by a private source. All travel expense must be documented in travel disclosure forms for both the relative and member. The forms are submitted to the clerk’s office and included in the financial disclosure forms.

  • Chapter 2, House Ethics ManualGift Disclosure — all gifts with an aggregate of more than $335 from a single source during the year must be disclosed on the financial disclosure form. Gifts received by a spouse or dependent may also be required to be disclosed (depending on the gift).

However, there is an exception for unusual cases, where “if a publicly available request for a waiver is granted,” not reporting the gift may be acceptable. A member seeking a waiver must apply with the Standards Committee.

  • Ethics in Government Act of 1978Financial Disclosure — According to the Committee on Ethics, “No federal statute, regulation, or rule of the House absolutely prohibits a Member or House employee from holding assets that might conflict with or influence the performance of official duties. However, acting partly to address the issues identified by the Bar Commission, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (“EIGA”), which mandated annual financial disclosure by all senior federal personnel, including all Members and some employees of the House.”

Reports must be filed by June 15, annually.

Several financial aspects are required to be disclosed. These include: Income, transactions, liabilities, gifts, travel reimbursements, positions, agreements, compensation in excess of $5,000 paid by a single source, and trusts.

For income, amounts in excess of $200 in a calendar must be reported. The source, type of income and exact dollar amount must be stated. A member must report the source of a spouse’s income, but not the amount, if it exceeds $1,000.

For more detail on federal financial disclosures, look here.