Among the $137,000 in gifts Hawaii lawmakers received over the last year were three tickets to the governor’s inaugural ball, valued at $250 apiece. Sen. President Shan Tsutsui was among the recipients.

Pricey tickets to fundraisers became the hot-button ethics issue of the 2011 legislative session. A ruling against accepting such tickets became a catalyst for lawmakers’ efforts to water down Hawaii’s gift law, including allowing legislators to accept “charitable gifts” from labor unions and business groups. The attempts failed.

The governor’s inaugural ball happened two months before the Hawaii State Ethics Commission banned lawmakers from accepting gifts of $200-per-person tickets to a Feb. 24 Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs (HIPA) fundraiser. No gift tickets were reported after that ruling.

But the Ethics Commission has said it’s looking into several “questionable gifts” during the reporting period from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011.

“After looking at the disclosure statements, the (commission) staff has raised questions about a number of the gifts as to whether they should’ve been accepted,” the commission’s executive director Les Kondo told Civil Beat.

He declined to comment on the inaugural ball tickets specifically. But he said the commission will consider “questionable gifts” at its next monthly meeting on July 20.

Tsutsui, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Ty Cullen disclosed in December receiving tickets to Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s inaugural ball fundraiser, valued at $250, according to their gift disclosures.

  • Cullen: Ticket valued at $250 from “Local 3.” The ticket was the largest of the 49 gifts Cullen received.

  • Dela Cruz: Ticket valued at $250 from architectural, engineering and construction management services firm Mitsunaga & Associates. The ticket was the only gift Dela Cruz reported for the year.

  • Tsutsui: Ticket valued at $250 from Ko Olina Resort of Kapolei. The ticket was the only gift Tsutsui reported for the year.

The three lawmakers did not return Civil Beat’s requests for comment.

Politicians are required to file annual gift reports if they receive gifts valued at $200 or more from a single source. Lawmakers are permitted to accept a meal valued up to $25 without having to report it, and $150 total over a year without having to report it.

The three donors of the tickets do not appear to be represented by registered lobbyists with the Ethics Commission.

The HIPA fundraiser tickets, of similar value to the inaugural ball tickets, raised red flags with the Ethics Commission in February.

Regarding the HIPA event, Kondo wrote to Tsutsui on Feb. 10, in response to a request for guidance: “It is our opinion … that the acceptance of these invitations would likely be prohibited by the ethics code. We note that the value of the tickets to the awards dinner appears to be substantial and that the donors are lobbyists, whose interests are subject to official action by the Legislature.”

Abercrombie’s sold-out Dec. 9 inaugural ball raised close to $672,000 from some of the state’s biggest businesses, unions and law firms.

Mitsunaga & Associates, the donor of Dela Cruz’s ticket, donated the most — $30,000. Ko Olina, the donor of Tsutsui’s ticket, donated $5,000.

All donations were used to pay for the inaugural events, Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz previously told Civil Beat.

In an e-mail earlier this year, she said: “The Inauguration Gala of Governor Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz was designed to pay for all activities related to the transition period and inauguration, including the official ceremony, luau and neighbor island events. Any proceeds remaining after expenses will be donated to the statewide Hawaiian Humane societies and Meals on Wheels as well as organizations to be determined.

“Donations were used to pay for these inaugural and transition expenses to avoid spending additional taxpayer dollars since the State of Hawaii does not have a special fund for inauguration.”

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