UPDATED 9/25/2014, 2:30 p.m.
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission on Wednesday reaffirmed its decision to withhold the financial disclosure statements of more than 100 current state board members who filed their annual reports before a new law took effect July 8.
The law added 15 powerful boards to the list of those that already must disclose their financial interests publicly. But there’s an ongoing debate over whether it should apply to members who filed their disclosure statements before it took effect.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo has interpreted the law to require the release of all the current members of the boards who fall under the new requirement, regardless of when they filed.
However, the five-member commission has chosen to follow the advice of the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office and only release the reports of those members who filed after July 8.
Kondo said this policy has resulted in the public disclosure of reports for only about 22 of the roughly 140 people who serve on the 15 boards that now have to file publicly. It’s also created a situation in which boards have some members who have disclosed their financial interests while others have not.
“The way that the law is being applied may not be consistent with the intent of the Legislature.” — Ethics Executive Director Les Kondo
He said he is concerned that it could be 20 months before the public gets to see many of the others because next year’s report is a “short form” that lets members simply check a box that says “no change” from the previous year. The next deadline for the “long form” reports is May 31, 2016.
“From staff’s perspective, the way that the law is being applied may not be consistent with the intent of the Legislature,” Kondo said.
Wynnie Hee of the Hawaii League of Women Voters and Brian Black, head of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, called on the commission to release the disclosure statements in question and make public the AG’s legal opinions so the public can better understand the commission’s rationale. The commission denied those requests.
“I’m disappointed that they didn’t change their mind but I think they’re being presented with conflicting legal interpretations and it puts them in a tough spot,” Black said after the meeting.
Under the state’s open records law, Civil Beat on July 14 requested the 2014 financial disclosure statements of the members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Land Use Commission and Agribusiness Development Corporation.
Kondo denied that request in part on July 29 after the commission voted against releasing any of the financial disclosure statements filed by board members before the new law took effect. He did release the reports of four members filed after July 8.
Update In light of Wednesday’s reaffirmation of the commission’s position, the law center, which is representing Civil Beat, filed a complaint in court Thursday that challenges the decision.
“On July 23, 2014, the State Ethics Commission adopted a policy that trivializes the public’s constitutional right of access to ethical disclosures made by sitting members of the State’s most powerful boards and commissions,” Black wrote in the motion for a preliminary injunction.
“The State Ethics Commission has conceded that it needs the public’s assistance to identify potential conflicts of interest because it lacks the resources to review all of the financial disclosures submitted annually,” Black wrote. “But, defying logic and precedent, the Commission refused to provide access to disclosures filed before the effective date …”
Read the complaint here:
In the meantime, the commission plans to send letters to all of the affected board members and ask them to voluntarily disclose their financial statements publicly.
Ethics Chair Ed Broglio is optimistic that many board members will voluntarily disclose their financial interests to the public.
Ethics Commission Chair Ed Broglio said after the meeting that he is optimistic many of the board members will voluntarily comply. But he said ultimately the matter seems to be headed to court for a judge to decide.
All five members of the Ethics Commission, which is one of the 15 boards affected by the law, have released their financial disclosure statements. The reports are available on the commission’s website along with the others that are already publicly available, including those for state lawmakers, the governor and department heads.
The financial disclosure statements identify in broad monetary ranges how much a person earns each year and the source of that income; property and business interests; stocks; memberships on outside boards or trusts; and creditors.
Supporters say the new law allows the public to help uncover conflicts of interest of board members. Kondo said the commission lacks the resources to thoroughly review all of the reports and needs to rely on the public for help.
By late July, 26 members across 10 state boards had quit after the Legislature unanimously passed the bill in April, adding the 15 boards to the list of those that must make their disclosures public. In their resignation letters, they cited privacy concerns, personal reasons and fears over how people might use the information if it is posted online.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie let the bill become law without his signature after arguing that the legislation could hurt women and was unfair to members who joined a board with the understanding that their financial disclosures would remain confidential.
Read the law center’s testimony to the commission here:
Read the League of Women Voters’ testimony here: