A powerful state senator is blocking efforts to strengthen Hawaii’s ethics and campaign spending laws, state officials and nonprofit leaders say.

They point to Sen. Clayton Hee, chair of the Judiciary and Labor Committee, as the major roadblock to good government and political reform laws. His five-member committee must clear this type of legislation before it can become law and as chairman Hee decides what bills will be heard.

This past session, which ended May 2, Hee did not hold a hearing on any of the eight bills put forward by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, the lead agency tasked with proposing changes to the state Ethics Code.

And of the roughly two dozen pieces of stand-alone legislation related to ethics or campaign spending, only a handful received hearings and only a couple became law. The vast majority stalled in Hee’s committee without public vetting.

Some lawmakers say it’s not all Hee’s fault — other senators could have pushed harder.

There are provisions in Senate rules that allow a majority of committee members to force the chair to hear a bill. Alternatively, one-third of the Senate can vote to hold a hearing on a bill that’s been stuck in a committee for 20 days.

These tools are rarely used, however, because of long-standing traditions and fear of political consequences. One lawmaker referred to it as the “nuclear option.” Another called it “suicidal” to override a committee chair.

Hee did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

But about a dozen lawmakers and others interviewed by Civil Beat said the reasons vary as to why he won’t advance the vast majority of measures that would reform ethics and campaign spending laws. Civil Beat agreed to allow the lawmakers and state officials to remain anonymous, recognizing the sensitive nature of their relationships with Hee.

As far as the Ethics Commission is concerned, those interviewed for this story said Hee doesn’t like the current executive director, Les Kondo. As a result, they believe Hee endeavors to kill bills Kondo supports.

One of the only ethics-related bills Hee did hear last session was something Kondo adamantly opposed. It was a proposal to retroactively exempt members of the now-defunct Mortgage Foreclosure Task Force from certain conflict-of-interest provisions in the Ethics Code.

In reality, Senate Bill 893 was a measure to exempt one member, attorney Marvin Dang. Kondo said he repeatedly warned Dang that he was violating the Ethics Code by lobbying for bills proposed by the task force he had served on.

The effort ended with the bill, which Hee introduced, dying in the House. And Dang recently paid the commission $1,000 to settle the issue.

Give Him What He Wants

Personal feuds aside, lawmakers and nonprofit leaders said Hee also seems to kill bills when he doesn’t get what he wants.

Senate Bill 66 would have required members of boards regulating land, water, utilities and university affairs to file publicly available financial disclosure statements. It came close to passing, which would have been a very progressive step for Hawaii. But it ultimately died in conference committee after a select group of lawmakers from the Senate and House were unable to work out differences between their respective versions of the bill.

Hee was unhappy the House had inserted a provision from a different bill, Senate Bill 669, which Hee wouldn’t hear in his judiciary committee. He was also mad he didn’t get millions of dollars for a Turtle Bay project, lawmakers said.

SB 669 would have closed a loophole lawmakers say they inadvertently created for themselves in 2011 that exempts them from actions they take in their legislative capacity. The Ethics Commission and others are concerned lawmakers could use their positions and access to confidential information to benefit themselves or others.

Sen. Josh Green benefitted from the exemption last year when he wrote a fervid letter to Honolulu Human Resources Director Noel Ono, urging him to solve a reimbursement issue with Automated Healthcare Solutions. The company donated $2,000 to Green’s campaign the week after he wrote the letter.

Green later donated the contribution to charity to avoid the perception of a conflict. And as he vowed in November, his name was indeed on the legislation to close the loophole that helped him avoid an ethics violation.

Lawmakers said there’s also a simple reason Hee rarely hears ethics and campaign spending bills — he thinks the reforms are unnecessary.

The legislation that died this session included bills to require more financial disclosure, stricter adherence to reporting requirements and fewer exceptions to conflict of interest provisions. Efforts to crack down on lobbyists met a similar demise in the Judiciary and Labor Committee.

Regardless of the reason, it’s proven to be a nearly impossible feat for the Ethics Commission and good-government groups to get their legislation past Hee’s committee. Year after year they try, unable to generate even a public discussion on the bulk of the bills.

Hide Behind Hee

Hee may also be shelving bills at the request of his colleagues, lawmakers said.

Not all legislators have the political capital and campaign war chest Hee has to fall back on, so they sometimes ask him to do the dirty work instead.

Some lawmakers said Hee seems to relish his role as the occasional bad guy who can stand up to the public outcry from special interest groups. One likened him to an opihi who just clings to his position more firmly when the waves of protest crash against him.

But there were a few notable exceptions this session in which Hee heard and passed bills related to ethics and campaign spending.

The Legislature passed House Bill 1147, which requires super PACs to disclose their top donors on campaign ads, and Senate Bill 31, which forces them to say how much money they received and spent.

Lawmakers also sent House Bill 1132 to the governor. It requires lawmakers to file a financial disclosure statement with the Ethics Commission in January, the beginning of the legislative session, instead of at the end of it in May.

“This earlier disclosure will enable the public to assess a legislator’s actions or positions against the legislator’s publicly disclosed financial interests,” Kondo said in testimony.

The sole bill in the Campaign Spending Commission’s legislative package, House Bill 201, died in Hee’s committee after clearing the House.

Parts of the bill were pulled out and inserted into separate vehicles — Senate bills 30 and 31 — that went on to pass the full Legislature. But a provision requiring candidates to file supplemental reports every year instead of just after elections wasn’t included, said Gary Kam, the commission’s general counsel.

He said the commission considers it a housekeeping amendment because candidates generally already file these reports annually. But if they don’t, the commission needs the language in the law so it can pursue them for violations.

House Better, But Not Great

Legislation to reform the state’s ethics and campaign spending laws didn’t fare much better on the House side. But the new Judiciary Committee chair, Karl Rhoads, did hear two of the Ethics Commission’s bills, the one Campaign Spending Commission bill and several others that weren’t included in a legislative package.

Rhoads said he is a big proponent of reforming campaign spending and ethics laws.

He said just because he didn’t hear a bill this session doesn’t mean he won’t next session. He added that he took up the most controversial bills this year, using up all the possible hearing dates.

As this is the first year of the two-year Legislature, bills can be heard next session without having to be reintroduced.

Rhoads said campaign spending reform is important because it’s fundamental to transparency in the political process.

“It’s probably the most important issue on a macro sense because who’s paying for campaigns is a critical component of what other bills pass,” he said.

Rhoads said the public has a right to know what elected officials are doing, which makes transparency and strong ethics laws key.

“There’s things we could definitely improve,” he said. “It should be easy for people to figure out what’s going on in their government.”

Early in the 2013 legislative session, Civil Beat published stories asking if this might finally be the year to reform the state’s campaign spending, lobbying and ethics laws.

Hawaii ranks among the worst in national surveys. More frequent reporting, more details on spending and more information on personal financial relationships are sorely lacking.

Bills were introduced to address these problems, but failed to pass this session.

House Bill 443, for instance, would have prohibited lobbyists from making contributions to lawmakers, the governor or lieutenant governor while the Legislature is in session. Rhoads’ committee passed the bill, but that’s as far as it got.

Lawmakers can still fundraise during session too. House Bill 1246 was one of those Rhoads chose not to hear this year.

Kondo told Civil Beat it was disappointing none of the Ethics Commission’s proposed bills passed. He said there were good bills in the legislative package — and others introduced by individual lawmakers — that would not only toughen up the current laws but make them internally consistent.

When asked what he thought of one lawmakers being able to almost unilaterally stop a bill, Kondo said, “It is what it is.”

Sen. Les Ihara, who has for years tried to pass many of the same bills to reform campaign spending and ethics laws, said he was encouraged that there were more hearings and therefore more public discussion last session than he’s seen in decades. But acknowledged the outcome wasn’t much different.

He said he remains optimistic for next session.

“The level of public understanding has been raised; the level of engagement from among community leaders has increased,” Ihara said. “The trajectory is all good. My sense is there’s more public concern about ethics among decision-makers.”

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