The Hawaii lawmaker who accepted an Apple iPad from a Hollywood film studio executive says she viewed the gift as a “good gesture” and a sign that the studio cares about Hawaii.

State Rep. Mele Carroll took an iPad, valued at $500, from Ryan Kavanaugh, founder and CEO of Relativity Media. The company lobbied for and supported legislation seeking to boost state tax breaks for film production in the islands. The company hired well-known Maui attorney Anthony Takitani as its lobbyist.

“At first I thought about not accepting it, because I don’t usually take gifts,” Carroll told Civil Beat. “In my heart, I know why I took it — it’s a tool, and I thought it was a good gesture. I took it as a message: that he’s not here just to benefit himself. He was truthfully finding a way for me to reach my constituents. I took it as a good gesture, not as a payment.”

Carroll was one of 11 lawmakers who accepted two dozen Blu-ray DVDs from Relativity Media, valued at $360, according to a Civil Beat analysis of gift disclosures. One of the lawmakers who got DVDs was chair of the committee that advanced the bill early in the session.

At least five of the studio’s executives submitted testimony in support of House Bill 1308 and Senate Bill 1550. The measures, neither of which became law, sought to make existing tax credits more generous — up to 35 percent on Oahu and 40 percent on the neighbor islands — for film and television productions done in Hawaii. Relativity Media says it has released 126 films — including “The Fighter,” “Despicable Me,” “The Social Network,” — generating $15.3 billion in worldwide box office sales.

‘Questionable’ Gifts

It’s against Hawaii law for lawmakers to accept a gift if it’s obvious that the gift is meant to influence or reward the lawmaker. The state’s Ethics Code requires lawmakers “disclose annually a gift or gifts that exceed $200 in value received from a single source.”

Hawaii legislators accepted more than $137,000 in gifts last year.

Les Kondo, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said the commission is starting to review lawmakers’ gift disclosures, which were due June 30 for the 2011 fiscal year.

“There appears to be gifts that appear questionable,” Kondo said. He declined to comment on specific examples.

Kondo said, in general, if a gift is deemed inappropriate, the commission may suggest it be returned or that its value be donated. The commission will take up “questionable gifts” at its next monthly meeting on July 20.

He said the commission wants to educate lawmakers and state officials on the Ethics Code, rather than impose penalties.

Judy Nadler, a senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University in California, said it’s typically not a good idea to accept gifts from a lobbying group.

“This studio obviously was seeking a connection and seeking legislative relief,” said Nadler, who previously served as mayor of Santa Clara, where she helped develop a code of ethics. “From the public’s perception, are you really telling me that you can’t buy your own iPad, or that you can’t buy or rent your own DVDs? I applaud them for disclosure, but I question why they would accept them.”

Carroll, a majority whip who represents the rural 13th district from Kahoolawe to Hana, said that after meeting Kavanaugh of Relativity Media on Maui, she helped arrange a presentation for House leadership. Following that presentation, the studio handed out the DVD gifts, she said.

Six DVD Recipients Introduced Bill

The 11 lawmakers who reported accepting the DVD gifts on Feb. 1 were:

  • Mele Carroll
  • Pono Chong
  • Cynthia Evans
  • Linda Ichiyama
  • Gil Keith-Agaran
  • Joey Manahan
  • Angus McKelvey
  • John Mizuno
  • Daynette Morikawa
  • Calvin Say
  • Kyle Yamashita

The House version of the bill advanced further than the Senate version. HB 1308 was introduced in late January by a total of 17 lawmakers. Six of the 11 lawmakers who accepted gifts from Relativity are listed as having co-introduced the measure.

Among the DVD recipients, Rep. Angus McKelvey, was appointed co-chair of a conference committee for the bill, while Carroll and Pono Chong were named conferees.

The bill advanced out of the House, and crossed over to the Senate in early March. It then headed to conference committee in mid-April.

A Tool for Teleconferencing

Carroll said she kept in communication with Kavanaugh and his staff throughout the session to “work to fine tune the legislation.” She reported receiving the iPad on April 27 — a day before the bill ultimately stalled in conference committee.

Carroll said Kavanaugh once showed her his iPad as a potential tool for teleconferencing with her constituents.

“He was showing me how it could benefit a legislator,” she said. “I’m the only legislator who covers four islands. I was expressing to him how it’s hard for me to reach my constituents. He said to me: ‘I’d like to give you one to help start your journey so that hopefully you can connect with your constituents.’ I thought he was joking, but then he sent me an iPad.”

‘It Was Just a Bunch of Movies’

McKelvey, chair of the House Committee on Economic Revitalization and Business, voted to pass HB 1308 out of his committee on Feb. 15. He said he was under the impression that all lawmakers received the DVDs. McKelvey said the gift had “zero bearing” on his decision making.

“I think it was mainly to educate us — to show us that these are the type of productions we can do here if Hawaii can mimic some of the incentives offered in other states,” McKelvey said of the DVDs. “I glanced at them. They were a hodgepodge of titles … It had zero bearing on any legislation, it was just a bunch of movies.”

McKelvey says he gave the DVDs away. Speaker of the House Calvin Say noted that he donated the movies to Kaimuki High School.

Nadler of Santa Clara University said politicians will sometimes claim they can’t be influenced by such gifts, but said they should be aware of the public perception created.

“In cases like this, the legislators will say, ‘Oh I didn’t use them,’ or ‘My kids used the DVDs,’ or ‘I can’t be influenced by an iPad,'” she said. “But you’re giving the perception that either this is going to influence your vote, or that you’re being thanked for what you have done — both of which wouldn’t be good public perceptions.”

Studio Promised to Create Jobs

Relativity Media’s senior vice president for business and legal affairs testified in support of the bill in February and submitted an extensive 58-page presentation. The last page of the presentation said: “With your help, and your support, we’ll create jobs and raise revenue for Hawaii.”

The presentation also included a side-by-side budget comparison for one of its films, “A Perfect Getaway,” which was set in Hawaii, but filmed in Puerto Rico. The studio said it saved $5 million by filming it in Puerto Rico.

Relativity Media testified that under the proposed boosted incentives, it would “move out film and television projects to Hawaii” and “build a state-of-the-art production facility that, coupled with tax incentives, will ensure Hawaii is always the first choice for film and television productions.”

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