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Gov. David Ige’s burgeoning administration is following in the footsteps of Gov. Neil Abercrombie when it comes to resisting the release of certain state board members’ financial disclosure statements.
State lawmakers unanimously passed a bill in April adding 15 boards to the list of those whose members must annually disclose their financial interests. Ige, a member of the Senate at the time, also voiced support for it in his campaign for governor.
Delaying the release of some of the records through a legal challenge would limit the public’s ability to identify potential conflicts of interest — something the Hawaii State Ethics Commission has said it could use help with.
David Louie, attorney general under Abercrombie, signaled his intent last month to appeal a court ruling that granted Civil Beat’s request for a preliminary injunction to force the Ethics Commission to release financial disclosure statements for current members of the Land Use Commission, University of Hawaii Board of Regents and Agribusiness Development Corporation Board of Directors.
The Ethics Commission has decided to follow the AG’s advice instead of its own executive director, Les Kondo, and not release the financial disclosures for members of the affected boards if they had filed their form prior to the law taking effect July 8.
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.
Russell Suzuki, who was Louie’s first deputy, is AG on an interim basis while Ige searches for a permanent replacement. He’s sticking to the course.
Suzuki filed a motion Dec. 5 asking Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura to grant a stay while the state appeals her Nov. 12 ruling. This could keep the records sealed another year.
On Monday, Civil Beat filed a motion opposing that request. A hearing on the motion is set for Friday. The news outlet is being represented by The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.
“The State Ethics Commission seeks to perpetuate an ineffective code of government ethics despite constitutional and statutory guarantees that would hold public officials to the ‘highest standards of ethical conduct,’” Brian Black, the law center’s executive director, wrote in the motion.
“If the State Ethics Commission wishes to resolve whether this Court committed error, it has an expeditious remedy. Its refusal to seek mandamus review exposes its position for what it is — a delay tactic at the expense of the public.”
Suzuki declined Civil Beat’s request for an interview.
The disclosure law took effect without the signature of Abercrombie. The former governor 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, citing the disclosures required by the bill if it made it past the governor’s desk. Over the next few months, the governor appointed new members to fill many of those seats.
Now the proverbial ball is in Ige’s court.
He supported the bill every step of the way as a state senator and made it a government transparency issue in his Democratic primary campaign against Abercrombie, whom he defeated by a two-to-one margin in August.
In June, Ige criticized Abercrombie for thinking about vetoing the bill.
“If I were governor, I would have signed this bill immediately because I believe in an open government that is held accountable and discourages conflicts of interest,” Ige said at the time.
What’s unclear is where Ige, who took office Dec. 1, stands when it comes to releasing the financial disclosure statements of current board members who filed before the law’s effective date.
Messages left with the governor’s office seeking comment were not returned.
The Ethics Commission is somewhat torn. The five appointed volunteer commissioners have chosen to follow the advice of the Attorney General’s office instead of Kondo, who interprets the law to require the release of the 2014 financial disclosure statements of members currently serving on the affected boards.
The commissioners have asked the affected board members to voluntarily disclose the financial statements, but few have done so. (The Ethics Commission is one of the affected boards and all the commissioners have voluntarily disclosed theirs.)
Louie said last month that the AG’s office believes that the case presents an important legal issue and should have appellate review.
The Ethics Commission on Nov. 19 voted to not stand in the AG’s way if that’s the direction the office chooses.