How do other states deal with members of task forces lobbying legislators on task force matters?

That issue, which has pitted the Hawaii State Ethics Commission against the Hawaii State Senate, remains largely unvisited elswhere.

“There’s not much out there” about state regulations discouraging state task force members from lobbying, said Natalie O’Donnell Wood, a spokeswoman for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Ethics in Government.

Washington state, for example, doesn’t have any lobbying regulations that specifically apply to state task force members, according to Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. (The Commission regulates the financial disclosures of paid lobbyists, says Anderson.)

“It’s not an issue here (in Washington),” she said. “Anyone who wants to can lobby.”

Ethics Commission vs. State Senate

It is an issue here at home, however.

It started in May with an opinion on a task force on mortgage foreclosures. This week in a new development, two state senators said they’re upset with an opinion from Les Kondo, the Ethics Commission’s executive director.

The dispute centers on the May 26 letter from Kondo to members of the Mortgage Foreclosure Task Force that members of task forces are state employees and therefore should refrain from lobbying on task force-related issues before the Legislature.

That upset Sens. Rosalyn Baker of Maui and North Shore Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, both Democrats, who — as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported — believe Kondo’s advice could have a “chilling effect” on the ability to recruit experts for task forces as well as working groups.

A July 15 memo from the Senate Majority Research Office to Baker argues that the Ethics Commission is in error about task force members being state employees and thus subject to the ethics code.

The memo also argues that the Ethics Commission cannot prohibit the convening of a task force in anticipation of a potential violation of state ethics code — something that prompted Dela Cruz to cancel the convening of a working group on urban development.

Reached Wednesday, Kondo said Dela Cruz misunderstood his guidance on working groups and pointed to a July 22 letter to the senator that says as much.

As Kondo told Civil Beat, “It’s a non-issue as to whether the Ethics Commission can prohibit a task force from convening. We have not and would not say they can’t convene — that’s not our kuleana.”

Kondo said that, in his view, the guidance on task forces and lobbying would have “minimal impact” on large companies like Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin and Kamehameha Schools.

However, he added, “This may cause them to think more carefully about who they put on a task force, and who to keep on lobbying.”

Kondo’s main point: “What people do not grasp is that this is a very narrow issue. This is about lobbyists. It does not affect the company the person works for and the company’s ability to lobby on matters that the task force worked on.”

Tsutsui: ‘We’re Working Through It’

Kondo met with Senate President Shan Tsutsui about the dispute Wednesday afternoon. Tsutsui told Civil Beat that the meeting “didn’t resolve anything” but was a chance for both sides to vent and gain “a better understanding.”

Tsutsui agreed with Kondo’s point that “people shouldn’t profit or have an advantage” from serving on task forces and working groups. But he also said he was concerned about “restrictions and interpretations that are put upon us. … We are trying to be as public and as transparent as possible.”

“We need guidance and expertise,” he said. “Imagine firefighters or teachers on a mortgage task force, or engineers dealing with teacher standards.”

Tsutsui said he would discuss the matter with House Speaker Calvin Say, noting that some House members had also raised concerns about Kondo’s advice.

“We are working through it,” he said.

“We had a good meeting,” agreed Kondo, who also met Wednesday with Baker. “I am hopeful as we move forward we can help them with this issue and others. That is one of this office’s roles.”

Non-issue in Most States

Elsewhere, task force lobbying appears a non-issue.

Tara Stock, a spokeswoman for California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said task force members are allowed to lobby as long as they comply with state disclosure laws.

Searching for the term “task force” in the state’s lobbying activity database reveals that multiple task forces — including the state’s Product Liability, Nuclear Moratorium and Responsible Conservation task forces — reported that they had received money to influence local or state elections.

However, some California task forces, such as the state’s Wellness Task Force, deliberately abstain from lobbying.

Regardless, O’Donnell Wood of the Center for Ethics in Government says that any regulation that would restrict task force members from lobbying is contingent on how individual states define a lobbyist.

“Defining them is what really comes into play,” she said.

Defining ‘Lobbyist’

Hawaii is one of three states — the others are Minnesota and New York — where a person must spend a certain amount of time and money on lobbying to be defined as a “lobbyist.”

A lobbyist in Hawaii is defined as someone who engages in more than five hours of lobbying per month or spends more than $750 lobbying during a given reporting period.

O’Donnell Wood says that Connecticut state statutes specifically include “quasi-public agencies” — which she would consider state task forces — in the various entities that fall under its definition of “lobbying.”

Though quasi-public agencies in Connecticut may not retain a lobbyist, members of the agencies are not prohibited from lobbying themselves. (“A member of an advisory board acting within the scope of his appointment” would not be defined as a lobbyist in Connecticut.)

Pennsylvania and Utah likewise exclude task force members from their definitions of lobbyists, according to O’Donnell Wood.

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