The Hawaii Ethics Commission wants to widen its net next legislative session to ensure the state conducts its business above-board.

The commission on Wednesday approved seven bills and a slightly bigger budget request for next year that it wants state lawmakers to pass when they get back to work Jan. 16.

Commissioner Leiolani Abdul said the proposed legislation was an “ambitious” package, noting some of the bills have been submitted in the past but failed to become law. Nonetheless, the commission decided to charge ahead and remain optimistic about the outcome.

The proposed legislation would require state task forces and more boards to file publicly available financial disclosure statements, which include sources of income and business interests. The seven additional agencies the commission wants to have adhere to the ethics code are: University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Board of Agriculture, Board of Land and Natural Resources, Hawaii Labor Relations Board, Hawaiian Homes Commission, Labor and Industrial Relations Appeals Board and Public Utilities Commission.

Aside from wanting more state agencies and appointed groups of people to file financial disclosure statements, the commission is asking the Legislature to pass a bill adding a nepotism provision to the ethics code that would prohibit the appointment to public office or the employment of close relatives by legislators and employees.

Along the same lines, the commission wants to expand the conflicts of interest section to prohibit employees from taking official action affecting a business or other undertaking in which the employee knows or has reason to know that a parent, emancipated child, brother or sister of the employee has a substantial financial interest.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo said he can see both sides of broadening the conflict of interest section. On the one hand, drawing a solid line makes it more easily enforceable. But there are concerns about how reasonable it would be to require someone to keep tabs, for instance, on all the boards their sibling is involved with and whether their business activities get into any gray areas, real or perceived, that could violate the ethics code.

Concerning lobbyists, the commission wants to make it easier to fine them for violations. When legislators weakened the law by making violations administrative instead of criminal, they left in a part that says the violations must be “willful.” The commission wants to simply delete the word “willful” to ease the burden of finding a person guilty.

The commission also wants to be able to have an extra 30 days, upon good cause, to respond to requests for advisory opinions.

Kondo said the law currently says if the commission doesn’t respond in 30 days, an action that potentially runs afoul of the ethics code is essentially written off. He said there are many reasons, such as lack of a quorum, that the commission might not be able to respond within that time period, so it would be prudent to have a mechanism to get an extension.

The commission currently has only three of its five members, making lack of quorum an especially real threat. Jacqueline Kido’s seat has been empty since August and Les Knudsen vacated his seat last month, leaving just Chair Maria Sullivan and Commissioners Abdul and Susan DeGuzman to conduct business.

Kondo said he hopes the two vacant positions will be filled by January. He said interviews of candidates nominated by the Judicial Council, a state board attached to the Supreme Court, are planned this week. Gov. Neil Abercrombie approves the nominations.

Bigger Budget Requested

The commission wants to add $60,000 to its roughly $848,000 annual budget so it can keep an analyst position that was filled this year by shifting funding from other sources. The analyst will help the commission do more investigations of ethics complaints and otherwise become a more efficient agency, Kondo said.

The state slashed the commission’s budget by 8 percent a few years ago due to fiscal constraints. Lawmakers restored half of it last year as the economy improved, which helped the commission bring salaries back to previous levels after employees took a 3 to 5 percent pay cut.

The requested increase for next year would bring the budget up just a bit over what the commission was running on in 2008, shoring up operating funds outside of personnel expenses. This money goes toward things like conferences and investigations, such as the one last month concerning a Big Island charter school employee charged with breaking conflict-of-interest laws.

Commissioners struggled to know how much it should request for next year in part because the House leadership is in flux and they don’t yet know who will head the Finance Committee.

Rep. Calvin Say announced last week that he is stepping down as speaker, the top position in the House, because he doesn’t have enough votes to beat Rep. Joe Souki, who has formed a coalition with Republicans.

Say threw his support behind Rep. Marcus Oshiro, who chairs the powerful Finance Committee. With lines dug deep in the sand, it’s highly unlikely Souki would tap Oshiro for the finance chairmanship if Souki ends up speaker.

Meantime, Kondo said he has been talking to Senate President Shan Tsutsui, trying to get a feel for where he stands on the commission’s budget. Kondo told the commission that Tsutsui has seemed receptive thus far.

One of the challenges the commissioners face in asking the Legislature for more money is dealing with lawmakers who think they will only use the additional resources to go after them, Kondo said. While the commission has disciplined legislators in the past over gifts and other violations, Kondo said he wants to assure lawmakers that the commission has bigger issues to pursue.

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