One Hawaii lawmaker learned the hard way how far you can go in using your public office for private business.
As president of the Waialua Little League, Rep. Gil Riviere received a plea last month from a junior girls’ softball team. They had won the state title and were headed to nationals in Arizona. But a week before the trip, they were just short of their $26,000 goal.
“Our team was 3,000 bucks short and I was trying as a last ditch effort to get them on a plane,” said Riviere, who represents the North Shore.
So he crafted an impassioned plea asking his fellow lawmakers in the House and Senate for donations. Riviere’s legislative office manager sent the letter via email on behalf of Riviere to every lawmakers’ government email address.
“The funds must be raised this week,” the email stated.
That same afternoon, Riviere’s phone rang. State Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo was on the line.
“He called to say that maybe that wasn’t something that should have been done,” Riviere told Civil Beat. “And I said ‘Don’t worry, it’s not something I’ll be doing again.'”
“It was naive and innocent,” said Riviere, who was elected last year. “In my mind, I was just trying to get them on the plane.”
“I think the issue was that I was using a state email system for fundraising for a not-a-state purpose,” he said.
Indeed, the state ethics code bans the use of state resources — including legislative staff and office equipment — for private business purposes.
Kondo ultimately decided to use Riviere’s email as a teachable moment.
Last week, he sent a memo dated Aug. 23 to all legislators. He writes:
“The State Ethics Commission, generally, has interpreted section 84-13, HRS, to prohibit state employees from using state resources for private fund raising. This prohibition applies to the use of state offices, state personnel, state computers and state email accounts for private fund raising.”
“We realize that legislators are often asked to assist with worthy private causes in their communities,” Kondo wrote. “If you have questions about your ability to use state resources for private fund raising, or for a purpose outside of your legislative duties, we recommend that you contact the State Ethics Commission for guidance.”
Riviere says he didn’t know about the prohibition on using public resources for private fundraising. But he’s gotten the message loud and clear.
“I’m not going anywhere near this subject again in the future,” he said.
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