‘Tis the season for gift-gifting. And for Hawaii lawmakers, their season was quite lucrative.
A Civil Beat analysis of lawmakers’ 2012 disclosure forms shows that Hawaii legislators received $278,416 in gifts between July 2011 and June 2012.
That’s more than twice as much as they reported receiving last year.
But whether that’s because lawmakers received more gifts or simply reported more of them is unclear.
Hawaii legislators received more than $137,000 in gifts last year, according to a Civil Beat analysis of their 2011 gift disclosures.
Hawaii state ethics law requires legislators to report any gifts worth more than $200, as well as multiple gifts from the same person or organization that total more than $200. The purpose of the law is to maintain transparency between elected officials and the public. The law also prohibits elected officials from accepting any gifts that are intended to influence legislation.
From Conferences to Cookies
The gifts ranged from tiny key chains to tickets to conferences on the mainland.
Former Rep. Pono Chong reported receiving the greatest amount: $19,066.
Chong listed 12 gifts, all related to attending conferences in eight different cities, including Quebec, Canada and Topeka, Kansas. Chong did not return repeated calls for comment.
Although lawmakers do not need to report every gift that they receive, their disclosures show that many went the extra mile and reported every gift, even those worth as little as $1.
House Speaker Calvin Say’s disclosure lists more than 230 entries, more than any other lawmaker.
A few highlights include $100 worth of snack baskets, manapua and dimsum from local developer Bert Kobayashi and $272 in fresh salmon (30 pounds worth) and reindeer pepperoni sticks from Mike Chenault, Alaska’s House Speaker. There’s also a $3,800 gift related to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference from the APEC Hawaii host committee.
Say said that he chose to note every gift because he wanted to maintain transparency.
“I truly believe in public disclosure,” he said. “If I’m having a breakfast two or three times with the same person, I’ll report it. For me, this is what the public can get from Calvin Say.”
The most expensive gift listed on any disclosure was a $4,500 trip to Taiwan by Say. He said the May 2012 trip, paid for by the Taiwan government, was important to maintain the relationship between Hawaii and its Asian neighbor. Other lawmakers reported the same trip, but gave it a lower value.
Say said he did not think his numerous gifts — which ranged from pears to hard-boiled eggs to plane tickets — affected the legislation he supported last session.
“[Each gift is] just more of the Aloha spirit that we try to convey,” he said. “It’s just to thank you very much for your service.”
Like last year, many of this year’s gifts were local food items. They included green tea, mochi, manapua and “Hawaii’s own transgenic papaya.”
Why the Sharp Increase?
Lawmakers aren’t required to submit gift disclosures if they don’t receive any that meet the threshold. This year, 55 lawmakers submitted gift disclosures, down from 59 last year. But the total value of gifts reported more than doubled.
Les Kondo, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, declined to speculate whether the increase reflected a change in the number of gifts given or more detailed reporting by lawmakers. He said legislators were given the same instructions as last year on how to fill out the disclosure forms.
Relativity Media, a California film company, came under fire from the ethics commission in 2011 for failing to accurately report the DVDs, which were worth thousands of dollars. In the process, lawmakers were also questioned.
“We had inquired with each of the legislators specifically about [whether they received] the DVDs,” Kondo said. “There was at least one and possibly more that filed amended gift disclosures to report the DVDs.”
Relativity Media paid a fine of $8,000 to the state to settle the ethics commission’s charge. The incident drew media attention to ethics rules about disclosing gifts.
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