The executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission says lawmakers pushed the envelope when it came to accepting gifts during the legislative session.
Civil Beat revealed last week that one lawmaker took an Apple iPad, and that she and 10 others took two dozen Blu-ray DVDs worth $360 from a company with an interest before the Legislature.
The line between an acceptable and an improper gift has “really been pushed,” Les Kondo, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said Wednesday.
“Things that are tangible that people can’t accept include cash, gift cards — these are general examples — iPads, DVDs…those probably fall into the category of tangible gifts people cannot accept because they’re not ‘Gifts of Aloha,'” he said.
The comments came after a meeting in which the commission, in its closed-door executive session, took up several gifts accepted by lawmakers that Kondo has described as “questionable.”
Kondo declined to comment on specific examples before the commission but noted the Ethics Commission is planning to publish new gift guidelines in the coming weeks.
A Civil Beat analysis of gift disclosure filings found that Hawaii legislators accepted more than $137,000 worth of gifts during the last year. Gifts ranged from hand-pounded poi valued at $5 to free tickets to the governor’s inaugural ball valued at $250 apiece.
Hawaii law prohibits lawmakers from accepting a gift if it’s obvious that it is meant to influence or reward the lawmaker. In addition, the state’s Ethics Code requires lawmakers to “disclose annually a gift or gifts that exceed $200 in value received from a single source.”
If a gift is deemed inappropriate, the commission may suggest it be returned or that its value be donated. The commission can also assess fines.
“Our advice to folks is that you can accept ‘Gifts of Aloha’ — gifts that are nominal or minimal in value or things that are traditionally brought in our culture as a gesture of goodwill,” Kondo said.
Manapua, malasadas, lei would all fall into that category, he said.
But as for trips, events, food and drink and other items — a lawmaker shouldn’t be accepting them unless there’s a tight nexus between the trip and the person’s official duties.
The more a gift relates to the job, the more the gift can be looked at as a state benefit (which is allowed) rather than a personal benefit (which is not).
This past year, State Rep. Mele Carroll took an iPad valued at $500 from the founder and CEO of Relativity Media, a company that lobbied for and supported legislation calling for bigger state tax breaks for film production in the islands.
Carroll told Civil Beat she accepted the iPad because it was a “good gesture” and a sign that the studio cared about Hawaii.
Only some of the enforcement actions of the Ethics Commission are public. So, whether the Ethics Commission will agree with her remains to be seen.
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