The Hawaii State Ethics Commission will consider a request this week by Civil Beat and the League of Women Voters to release the financial disclosure statements of dozens of powerful state board members. 

The news outlet and good-government group want the documents filed by members of the 15 boards that the Legislature unanimously required to publicly disclose their financial interests. Civil Beat has filed a public records request for the disclosure statements of current members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Land Use Commission and Agribusiness Development Corporation. That request was denied.

The law took effect July 8 after Gov. Neil Abercrombie decided against vetoing the measure. But two weeks later, the Ethics Commission voted to keep confidential the disclosure statements of any member who filed before July 8.

State Ethics Commission May 2014

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission listens to testimony during its meeting, May 21, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The League of Women Voters and Civil Beat, represented by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, have asked the commission to reconsider its position and release the documents, which help identify potential conflicts of interest. 

The commission plans to discuss the concerns presented by the law center and league at its meeting Wednesday

“The whole situation that’s been created by the current position is just odd,” said Brian Black, the law center’s president and executive director.

“They’ve set up a situation where they seem to be referencing privacy concerns but they are producing financial disclosure statements for some members and not others,” he said. 

The commission testified when the bill was moving through the Legislature earlier this year that it needs the public’s assistance in identifying conflicts of interest due to lack of staff. But, as Black pointed out, the commission has chosen to delay releasing many of the financial disclosure statements until 2016, the next time the long-form reports are due.

“Especially when you’re dealing with these boards and commissions that the Legislature has determined should be public — some of the most powerful boards and commissions in the state — it doesn’t make sense to hide the information at this point,” Black said.

Civil Beat asked the law center to help after the commission denied its request for the records. 

“We believe it is unreasonable and unfair to disregard the clear legislative mandate of Act 230 without any public explanation.” — League of Women Voters

Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo has said that he supports the five-member commission’s decision, but had interpreted the law to require the release of the disclosure statements for all current members of the affected boards regardless of when they filed them.

The league wants to see the Hawaii Attorney General’s opinion that the commission relied on when it decided to only release the financial disclosures of members who filed after the law took effect.

“We believe it is unreasonable and unfair to disregard the clear legislative mandate of Act 230 without any public explanation,” the league says in testimony it is preparing to deliver Wednesday.

Black said the commission is set up to be independent and insulated from political influence, yet the members don’t appear to be listening to their own staff’s advice.

The governor aired concerns over privacy in his message to the Legislature letting lawmakers know he was going to let the bill become law without his signature.

“Subjecting current members of boards and commissions to the public disclosure of their private business and financial information now, after they agreed to serve and were confirmed by the Senate, or alternatively, causing them to resign if they do not agree to the required public disclosure, is unfair,” Abercrombie said.

By late July, 26 members across 10 state boards had quit since lawmakers passed the bill in April. In their resignation letters, they cited privacy concerns, personal reasons and fears over how people might use the information if it is posted online. 

Many of the vacancies have since been filled, despite concerns from the governor and others that said the public financial disclosure requirement would deter people from applying.

On Tuesday, the UH Board of Regents’ Candidate Advisory Council presented a list of candidates to fill the vacancies of four people who quit the board over the financial disclosure law. 

Black said he’s hopeful the commission will reverse its July 23 decision and release the financial disclosures that were filed before July 8.

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