The State Ethics Commission has been making headlines, but are they making headway in ushering in higher standards of ethical conduct?

The commission has the responsibility to administer the state ethics code. Its job is to rein in elected and appointed officials when they stray from the high ethical standards the public expects.

This obviously hasn’t won them any popularity contests at the State Capitol.

Immediately after taking over as the commission’s executive director nearly two years ago, Les Kondo advised legislators that accepting free tickets to a fancy reception put on by two industry groups was a no-no.

Many legislators were angered both by what they saw as an abrupt tightening of ethics constraints, and by Kondo’s occasionally abrasive way of delivering the message.

Of course, legislators pass judgment on the commission’s budget, and also control the fate of any proposals to reform or strengthen ethics laws.

In Hawaii’s small town political atmosphere, where “go along to get along” is the dominant approach, this provides a readily available means for legislators to push back against unwanted ethical advice.

The commission also faces pressure from the other direction, where a cynical public is ready and eager to pounce on alleged ethical lapses by public figures, spurred on by public interest watchdogs always pushing for stronger enforcement actions at a faster pace.

The commission is often caught firmly in the middle.

Nothing Is Simple

You would think ethics would be easy.

We teach kids a few simple things. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t be selfish.

Expressed positively, we admonish them to tell the truth, follow the rules, and play fair.

Those are the same basic building blocks of the state ethics code.

So why are ethics in government so hard to deal with? Let me suggest a few reasons.

First, it’s always easier to see other people’s ethical problems. They have conflicts of interest. We just have friends, family, and business associates, and naturally want to help them out.

I often put it this way: There is a very fine line between community and corruption, and it’s all too easy to step across the line in our natural desire to help our friends.

Second, in politics and government, some people are paid very well to bend public decisions in their own favor.

Lobbyists aren’t paid to do what’s “right” for the whole community, although I’m sure most think their particular interests are best for the rest of us as well. They are paid to make public decisions come out right for their clients.

Lobbyists earn their keep by building positive relationships and trust with decision-makers, striving to become everyone’s best and most useful friend, and then using their friendships and influence to get their way.

With so much money and power at stake, it’s no coincidence that many potential violations of the ethics law involve gifts or favors exchanged, solicited, or offered in those complicated relationships between lobbyists and legislators.

Third, good-government reforms have a short half-life. Most laws are passed once and done.

But reforms, including public interest ethics laws, have to be won, and then won again, and again. These reforms usually grow out of scandal, get support from public officials as long as the spotlight is on them, and then are allowed to slowly drift into the background until the next scandal comes along. And while they are in the background, legislators and lobbyists return to chip away at them, coming back again and again to restore special privileges when the public isn’t paying attention or when public interest groups are stretched too thin to effectively resist.

Fourth, it turns out there are a lot of legal technicalities to consider when translating those basic ethical principles into effective ethics laws. And this means that even where there’s a consensus on ethics policies, there can be legitimate legal disagreement over how to translate that consensus into clear, understandable laws. The more complicated these disagreements, the harder it is for the public to remain interested and involved in the issues.

Finally, real corruption is relatively rare, so when getting down to the practical problem of distributing scarce resources and allocating budgets, the ethics commission, already short of legislative friends, seems to be at a distinct political disadvantage.

High Standards A Must

The public wants high standards of ethical conduct in government and elected officials say they agree, but then fail to provide the resources necessary to get the job done.

For example, state law requires lobbyists to register with the ethics commission and disclose what they spend influencing legislative decisions. But those disclosures, and the relationships they represent, go largely unexamined because the commission lacks sufficient staff to do the job. Apparent violations, when they are found, are usually reported by members of the public rather than turned up during reviews by commission staff.

Similarly, although advisory task force members now have to file personal financial disclosures, it is largely a symbolic change.

“It’s a practical issue,” Kondo told the commission last week, noting they lack the staff necessary to review financial disclosures for possible conflicts of interest.

These limitations render the new reporting requirements “somewhat meaningless,” Kondo said.

It’s too easy to get cynical about the intentions of public officials and special interests, and exasperated with the shortcomings of an under-resourced ethics commission. With communication between the commission and legislature strained by recent clashes over the application of ethics rules, it’s hard to see them developing a better working relationship in time to pursue any substantial and constructive changes in the upcoming 2013 legislative session.

Perhaps this is one of those times when leadership will have to come from elsewhere in the community.

Who’s ready to step up?

Read Ian Lind’s blog at iLind.net.