Little more than a month after leaving his job as former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s chief of staff, Bruce Coppa made a quick spin through the so-called revolving door to return as a lobbyist.

And not just any run-of-the-mill lobbyist. Coppa assumes a top job in Hawaii’s largest lobbying firm, Capitol Consultants, where he has already started work as a partner with the title of executive vice-president.

Coppa was chief of staff from October 2011 through the end of Abercrombie’s term Dec. 1, and also held the title of administrative director of the state. As chief of staff, Coppa had a key role in setting the administration’s policies and directing its legislative agenda. As administrative director, he had broader responsibilities, including monitoring the functioning of state government, serving as liaison between and among state departments, and preparing the agenda for meetings of the governor’s cabinet.

Kalbert Young and Bruce Coppa

Bruce Coppa, right, with state Finance Director Kalbert Young in 2013 when Coppa was Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s chief of staff.

Civil Beat

In his new role, Coppa teams up with Capitol Consultants’ partners, John Radcliffe and George “Red” Morris, considered perhaps the most influential duo in the state’s small core of professional lobbyists.

While it is not uncommon for former legislators to later trade on their insider knowledge of the system and personal relationships with former colleagues, it is unusual for a key inside player like Coppa to jump so quickly into a prominent role in a premier lobbying firm.

Good government advocates have long been troubled by the appearance that the revolving door allows former government officials to unfairly or improperly profit from their public service, and further allows special interests who employ them to gain undue influence over their former agencies and colleagues through the legislative and policy-making processes.

Hawaii’s government ethics law (Section 84-18 HRS) contains several post-employment restrictions which, according to State Ethics Commission guidelines,  are “intended to prevent former legislators and employees from using influence derived from, and relationships developed during, their state employment to unfairly benefit themselves or others.”

The most well-known restriction imposes a one-year “cooling off” period during which the former officials and employees are barred from being paid to represent private interests before their former agencies.

“The provision is there to prohibit somebody from profiting from their service as a public employee, or from getting an unfair advantage based on that service,” Les Kondo, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said Tuesday.

The Ethics Law

There are several restrictions that would apply to Coppa and to other former government employees.

First, former legislators and employees are prohibited from disclosing information which they obtained on the job and “which by law or practice is not available to the public.” In addition, such information can’t be used for the personal gain or benefit of themselves or anyone else. The one-year time limit doesn’t apply to this provision, which is permanent.

In addition, former employees are prohibited from being paid to represent any person or business “on matters involving official action by the particular state agency or subdivision” where the person had worked, or more generally on matters in which the employee had participated.

The word “represent” is defined somewhat narrowly, meaning “to engage in direct communication on behalf of any person or business” with any legislator, state agency, or their employees. So while a former employee might be barred from lobbying for a year, the law appears to allow them to be the back-seat driver who advises others on how to “work” the agency to a client’s benefit.

In a telephone interview, Coppa said he has taken care to comply with ethics guidelines and has been concerned about public perceptions.

“The provision is there to prohibit somebody from profiting from their service as a public employee.” — Les Kondo, executive director, State Ethics Commission

“Trust me, I was very conscientious,” Coppa said. “I’m no fool.”

Initially, Coppa said, he assumed that he would not be able to do any lobbying involving the Legislature or executive agencies during the first year, and would be limited to dealing with businesses and labor organizations. That turned out not to be the case.

Coppa said he and deputy chief of staff Blake Oshiro met with Kondo to review the legal requirements imposed by the ethics law.

“I’m allowed to lobby the Legislature,” Coppa said, but executive branch agencies are off limits until after the one-year period.

Kondo confirmed that he had been in touch with Coppa and Oshiro, but declined to characterize their discussion. However, despite Coppa’s stated intent to stay away from executive branch agencies and departments, Kondo said the commision interprets the one-year lobbying ban more narrowly.

“The commision’s past interpretation has been that because his position was in the governor’s office, that is his agency,” Kondo said.

Under this narrow view of the lobbying restriction, it appears Coppa could contact agencies other than the governor’s office on behalf of clients as long as he hadn’t “participated” in the same matter while a state official.

Doing It By the Book

While not commenting specifically on Coppa’s situation, Kondo said that if a former employee’s  responsibilities had “touched near” a matter, the commission’s staff could examine whether that degree of participation created a subsequent advantage. That said, it falls short of a ban on executive branch contacts.

For the time being, however, Coppa said he is just trying to get familiar with Capitol Consultants and its clients. Learning more about lobbying will come a bit later, he said.

“Trust me, I was very conscientious. I’m no fool.” — Bruce Coppa, former top state official and now a new lobbyist

Coppa, whose resume includes stints with E.E. Black and Pacific Resource Partnership, as well as experience as an executive with Communications Pacific, says he wants to help Capitol Consultants expand services to business and labor.

“Look at my background,” Coppa said. “I’m not a lobbyist, but I understand the things businesses have to deal with every day, labor relations, government relations, marketing, and public relations. That’s what I want to bring to Capitol Consultants.

“Then I’ll learn more about what the lobbying business is all about.”

Overall, it seems that the administrative director turned lobbyist has done things by the book, sought the advice and guidance of the State Ethics Commission, and proceeded carefully, even conservatively.

But whether the state ethics law, with its exemptions, narrow interpretations, and subjective assessments, does all it can to slow the revolving door, appears open to debate.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.