It could be months if not longer before the Hawaii State Ethics Commission releases the financial disclosure statements of certain state board members that a judge ruled last week must be made public in accordance with a new law.
That’s because Hawaii Attorney General David Louie plans to appeal the court’s decision, which is expected to keep the records private while that lengthy process plays out.
The five-member commission voted 4-0 on Wednesday to not object to the AG’s move to appeal. Commissioner Melinda Wood abstained. The vote came after an almost hour-long discussion behind closed doors with Louie and two deputy attorneys general.
“The Attorney General believes that Act 230 and the complaint presents an important legal issue and should have appellate review,” Ethics Commissioner Susan DeGusman said before making her motion.
“The commission has no objection to the Attorney General filing an appeal to the preliminary injunction and/or taking necessary steps to seek further proceedings to obtain full and final appellate review on the merits,” she said.
“The Attorney General believes that Act 230 and the complaint presents an important legal issue and should have appellate review.” — Ethics Commissioner Susan DeGusman
Civil Beat filed a lawsuit in September challenging the commission’s decision to not release the financial disclosure statements of the members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Land Use Commission and Agribusiness Development Corporation Board of Directors.
First Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura on Nov. 12 granted Civil Beat’s request for a preliminary injunction to require the commission to release those records. The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest brought the case to court on behalf of the Honolulu news outlet.
Brian Black, the law center’s executive director, said Wednesday that he hopes the AG will be looking for ways to get the matter resolved as expeditiously as possible.
“It’s disappointing that they have allowed a course of action to continue that is not in the public interest and does not maintain the high ethical standards that the Legislature clearly wanted,” he said.
The Legislature in April unanimously passed a bill, backed by the Ethics Commission, that added 15 boards to the list of those whose members must publicly disclose their financial interests.
The law took effect July 8 without the signature of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who expressed concerns over protecting the privacy of people who joined the boards with an understanding that their financial disclosure statements would remain confidential.
By late July, 26 members across 10 state boards had quit since the bill was passed. Over the past few months, the governor has steadily appointed new members to fill those seats.
“It’s disappointing that they have allowed a course of action to continue that is not in the public interest.” — Brian Black, Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest
The commission took up the matter in September, reaffirming its position — as advised by the AG — that the law should only apply to those members who joined a board after the law’s effective date, thereby sealing the disclosure statements of anyone who had already filed.
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. Nonetheless, he is yielding to the commission’s decision and has not released the records.
Kondo said after the meeting that he thinks the AG’s Office is more interested in the merits of the case, “which they think is an important enough issue that they feel an appeal is appropriate.”
Wednesday was the first time Louie has come to one of the commission’s meetings on the matter. In the past, he has sent his deputies, Charleen Aina and Robyn Chun.
With Gov.-elect David Ige taking office Dec. 1, it’s uncertain whether Louie will remain AG in the next administration.
The judge set a status conference for Dec. 3 to discuss the next steps in the lawsuit. Nishimura granted the preliminary injunction in a ruling from the bench. The order has has yet to be signed.
Few state board members have voluntarily agreed to disclose their financial interests as requested by the Ethics Commission.
Recently, the Ethics Commission sent out a letter to roughly 50 people who are currently serving on state boards but filed their financial disclosure statements before the law took effect.
The letter asks them to voluntarily release their records. Kondo said about seven have decided to do so thus far, in addition to all of the members of the Ethics Commission.
The financial disclosure statements of those members — along with the other people in state government who already have to comply, including the governor and all 76 legislators — can be found on the commission’s website.
The disclosure forms 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.
The commission had advocated for the law so the public could flag potential conflicts of interest.