Hawaii has an ethics code, an ethics commission and an ethics commission executive director we at Civil Beat have likened to a new sheriff in town.

The reality is that all three are products of the Hawaii Legislature.

Yet you would have a hard time knowing that from the way lawmakers are acting this session.

Lawmakers seem to want to undercut the very ethics rules they or their predecessors put in place.

You’ve got to wonder why they’re moving to exempt people from the ethics code rather than making sure trust in government is strengthened by making sure people involved in public issues are governed by the ethics code.

But that’s what they’re doing.

Take a look at the major charter schools overhaul that’s headed to a final vote in the House Tuesday. Senate Bill 2115 would establish a new governance system for the public schools. What’s important to remember here is that charter schools in Hawaii use state tax dollars to pay for the education of their students. They’re public schools.

Yet the bill exempts the new governing board, charter schools and their governing boards from the state ethics code, as long as they develop their own policies and procedures for gifts, conflicts of interest and contracts consistent with the goals of the ethics code. Why not just make them abide by the ethics code, the way other public officials have to?

Here’s an excerpt from testimony from the attorney general:

“These exemptions appear contrary to the mandate in article XIV of the State Constitution, which requires the Legislature to adopt a code of ethics that applies to
employees of the State, and members of state boards.”

Then take a look at House Bill 2175, which would exempt task force members from “certain requirements, restrictions, and prohibitions of the State’s code of ethics.”

You might remember that one way Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo got lawmakers riled up last year was by ruling that members of a mortgage foreclosure task force were barred from lobbying on the issue they were advising the state on.

So what do lawmakers do this year, they move to get around the new sheriff in town by, you guessed it, taking another step to limit the reach of the ethics code.

You’d think lawmakers would look at the abysmal approval ratings for Congress and figure out that stripping a sense of propriety from state government wouldn’t be a good idea.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case at the 2012 Legislature.

Here’s an excerpt from testimony about the task force changes provided by the ethics commission about the task

“The Committee should be aware that, by amending the definition of “Employee” to exclude members of “task forces,” member of those groups will be exempt from all the provisions of the State Ethics Code, and not just the conflicts of interests provisions. Specifically, the provisions of the State Ethics Code that prohibit misuse of position or acceptance of gifts under circumstances in which it can be reasonably inferred that the gift is offered to influence or reward official action will not apply. Thus, there would be no prohibition against a member of a task force accepting lavish dinners and expensive gifts, even trips and event tickets, from those with interests in the outcome of the task force’s deliberations. And, because task force members will be exempt from the State Ethics Code, they would not be required to report or otherwise disclose the dinners and gifts that they received.”

You have to wonder why lawmakers would do that.

Could it be that if they don’t like what the ethics commission does, they might not be able to directly take it on — that might make them look bad. But they sure can take steps to gut its powers?

Because that’s what seems to be going on.

About the Author