- Special Projects
UPDATED 8/22/12 10 a.m.
But are they really?
Civil Beat analyzed all 76 lawmakers’ 2012 financial disclosures. But the forms were riddled with omissions and incomplete answers.
That means the “richest” lawmakers are more likely the ones who are the most scrupulous about filling out their disclosure forms.
Financial disclosures are intended to help the public ensure that lawmakers aren’t voting on issues in which they have a financial interest.
On the federal level, even with members of Congress disclosing their assets in ranges, determining wealth from financial disclosures is a relatively straightforward process. Civil Beat wrote about the public disclosures of Hawaii’s congressional delegation in June.
But a similar exercise on the state level is basically meaningless. It raises the question: What good are disclosures if you can’t tell anything from them?
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission requires senators and representatives to list the value and source of any income from the previous year worth more than $1,000, as well as any interests in businesses worth more than $5,000 or more than 10 percent.
Lawmakers are also supposed to disclose the street addresses and values of all property worth more than $10,000, excluding their personal residences.
According to Dan Mollway, who directed the State Ethics Commission from 1986 to 2010, the importance of the financial disclosures is often underestimated.
“The ethics code has no conflict of interest law for legislators,” Mollway said. “The disclosures allow people to see if there are conflicts.”
As in the case of their ownership of stocks or mutual funds, some lawmakers skimped on the details when describing their income or property.
Several lawmakers failed to include full property addresses, disclosing only street names rather than exact addresses. Sen. Brickwood Galuteria listed the addresses of three properties but did not include estimates of their values.
“It was an oversight on my part,” Galuteria explained. “This is public record so we’re certainly not looking to screw up.”
Galuteria submitted an amendment correcting the omission in response to Civil Beat’s inquiry.
According to Mollway, the disclosure of property details is helpful in exposing “sweetheart deals,” such as when a lobbyist buys a piece of property from a lawmaker for more than it is worth or when legislators profit from inside information about city development.
In another instance, Rep. Rida Arakawa-Cabanilla divulged her three sources of income but omitted the values of each. Cabanilla did not return Civil Beat’s request for a comment.
Last year, Civil Beat reported that lawmakers’ disclosures contained numerous discrepancies between officials’ claimed property values and the state’s property value assessments. This year, several of these same discrepancies remained, due mainly to instances of subleasing or partial ownership, according to explanations provided last year. A few lawmakers, such as Rep. Marcus Oshiro, made an effort to clarify their property value estimates by stating specifically the fraction or percentage of their ownership.
Another factor that complicated the determination of lawmakers’ wealth was the varied ways in which Hawaii legislators quantified their business interests. The financial disclosure form provides the option of conveying the value of a business interest or the number of shares. Many lawmakers chose to list their percentage of ownership rather than a monetary value.
According to Les Kondo, executive director of the ethics commission, answering in the form of a percentage is in accordance with the spirit of the state ethics code, if not the letter of the instructions.
“If the purpose of the form is to get some transparency as to what a person’s interest is, then that percentage probably provides more transparency than saying the whole value is $100,” Kondo said.
Yet as Civil Beat reported last month, the commission sent a memo to all senators and representatives on July 12 asking them to review their certified disclosures to ensure that they included all “amounts and values” of their financial interests, as well as other necessary information.
As it stands, the lack of monetary amounts on the disclosure forms means that the values of many lawmakers’ business interests are unclear.
Finally, although the ethics commission uploads all of the disclosures on its website, not all of them are the most recent versions. When Civil Beat contacted Rep. Thielen about her financial disclosure, she informed us of the existence of an amendment submitted to the commission in April.
Kondo said via email that the ethics commission makes an effort to post disclosure amendments by the day after they are received. However, resource limitations may affect its ability to ensure that all disclosures are uploaded in a timely manner.
Given all these caveats, Civil Beat’s determination of the wealthiest lawmaker is by no means scientific. That said, here’s what we found:
Thielen emerged as the wealthiest representative by far, reporting millions in real estate, investments and income. As a beneficiary of a number of trusts, her annual income from trusts alone ranges from $200,000 to $350,000.
Her total ownership in trusts is worth over $1.5 million, and her property ownership is valued between $2.65 and $4 million. Depending on where her assets fall within the given ranges, Thielen’s total wealth may be upwards of $7 million.
In contrast, the next wealthiest representative is Rep. Jerry Chang, whose assets are worth at most $2.2 million, not including his partial ownership of ABSC Development Co. and Koa Real Estate.
Take a look at Thielen’s full disclosure below, and read the disclosure instructions to interpret the coded values:
In the Senate, Sen. Ronald Kouchi1 reported the most wealth, with assets potentially worth up to $1.5 million. The bulk of his wealth derives from his property in Lihue valued between $650,000 and $1 million. View his full disclosure here: