Many ranking administrators at the University of Hawaii will no longer be able to routinely request and receive free tickets to football games and other athletic events under policy guidelines adopted by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission last week.

Under the new guidelines, only the university president, Manoa chancellor, and members of the Board of Regents will be eligible to receive complimentary athletic tickets for themselves and a spouse or partner.

These officials qualify because they all serve protocol functions due to their positions of leadership and responsibility for representing the university at public events, the commission said.

But the commission found other top UH system administrators, including vice presidents, associate vice presidents, and others down the executive pecking order, do not serve a similar protocol function. As a result, according to the commission, they are eligible to receive free tickets only when they have specific job responsibilities at an event and their presence serves “a legitimate state purpose.”

This will be a big change. In recent years, several vice presidents and associate vice presidents have received thousands of dollars worth of season tickets for themselves and family members on request. That will no longer be allowed under the commission’s new guidelines.

Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, who is responsible for coordinating and approving issuance of complimentary tickets, will now be expected to provide written justifications for any free tickets given to UH administrators and employees, as well as third parties.

The commission previously made clear that Chancellor Apple will be expected to maintain records documenting how free tickets were distributed and the reasons their use was considered appropriate.

UH General Counsel Darolyn Lendio told the commission earlier this year that the university had already adopted new policies restricting the distribution of free tickets.

“It’s not like before,” Lendio said at that time.

But the commission said those policies didn’t go far enough. For example, they would have authorized vice-presidents to receive two free tickets on request, while associate vice-presidents were allowed a single ticket, and could purchase an additional ticket for a spouse.

“After considering information provided by the UH, especially the justification for the issuance of complimentary tickets to certain employees and their families, the commission does not agree that all aspects of their ticket policies in their current form comport with the state ethics code,” commission staff said during last week’s public meeting.

The state ethics code prohibits any employee (or legislator) from securing “unwarranted privileges” for themselves or others.

“Stated differently, the State Ethics Code does not allow the University to provide its own employees or others with complimentary tickets or passes where such distribution would constitute an unwarranted privilege or benefit,” the commission advised in a memo addressed to the Board of Regents. “In order to comport with the State Ethics Code, the distribution of complimentary tickets or passes to any person, whether a UH official, UH employee, other state employee, or member of the public, must serve a legitimate state purpose.”

The commission went on to describe a number of situations in which use of free tickets would be appropriate, such as when university employees host donors, potential donors, or guests “whose presence…helps to generate goodwill for the university due to the unique stature of that guest.”

University officials had earlier argued they should be given considerably more leeway in use of tickets to UH games.

The commission has insisted the university is a state agency, and tickets to these events are state assets, or state property of relatively substantial value.

Executive Director Les Kondo, in discussing a separate but related policy issue, told commissioners the total dollar value of athletic tickets or other benefits isn’t most relevant. Kondo said it isn’t the amount of money involved, but whether or not any benefits are “unwarranted.”

“We’re looking at the issue, not the dollar value,” Kondo said.

The issue of free tickets, especially to football games, has been festering for years. It came to a head following the university’s appearance in the 2007 Sugar Bowl, when questions were raised about those who were invited to travel and attend the game at UH expense.

The latest guidelines emerged out of discussions between commission staff and university lawyers.

Those involved say that the Manoa Chancellor is expected to revise the university’s current policies to comply with the commission’s new guidelines, but there are still numerous gray areas or areas of contention.

For example, Lendio, appearing before the commission in March, defended providing complimentary tickets to spouses accompanying administrators to games.

When asked what justification there would be for providing free tickets to spouses, Lendio replied: “So the spouse isn’t hating them when they’re gone,” an excuse that one participant said “didn’t pass the laugh test.”

Although the commission made clear that reasons like this would not be acceptable, it’s going to be hard to break with past practices.

Kondo said the commission’s guidelines amount to “a relatively high-level framework” to be applied so the university’s practices comply with state law, and are necessarily vague.

“If UH gets into a situation where they’re not certain what is appropriate, we’re here as a resource to clarify and provide advice,” Kondo said.