Hawaii House Speaker Joe Souki’s jarring appearance last week in the mailbag of the state Ethics Commission just as the body takes up its personnel evaluation of its controversial executive director, Les Kondo, should be enough to ensure that the commission reaffirms its full support of Kondo at this morning’s meeting. That may not be the outcome Souki wanted, but it’s one his ill-timed correspondence has virtually guaranteed.

Souki is among many who are critical of the Ethics Commission under Kondo, who has served as executive director since 2011. Kondo has brought significant changes to interpretations of the state Ethics Code, but some don’t like the changes, as Civil Beat’s Nathan Eagle reported last Friday:

“Kondo has been in the hot seat practically since he took over the executive director spot in 2011, tangling with lawmakers over his hard line on accepting meals and gifts, disclosing financial interests and lobbying by task force members. Even then, he was upfront about the seriousness with which the commission intended to enforce the ethics code and crack down on violators.”

Speaker Joe Souki. 7 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State House Speaker Joe Souki was critical of the Ethics Commission’s actions under the leadership of Executive Director Les Kondo in a recent letter to the commission.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s one thing to grumble about enforcement of the Ethics Code, but it’s quite another for the House leader to send a signal that Kondo ought to be reined in. Even if unintended, Souki has created an appearance of attempted legislative interference in what ought to be the Ethics Commission’s own business.

While allowing such a perception to go unchallenged might be problematic for any variety of state offices, it would create very specific questions for the Ethics Commission regarding independence,  influence and, ultimately, credibility.

Souki argues that his letter wasn’t intended to influence any decisions regarding Kondo’s employment. Rather, he believes recent Ethics Commission actions “have led to confusion and uncertainty” and that if Kondo and the commission want to change the state ethics code, it should pursue legislative remedies.

Les Kondo Ethics Commission Mtg  Hand

Les Kondo has tangled with lawmakers over his interpretations of the state Ethics Code.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Fair enough. But as Civil Beat’s Ian Lind pointed out earlier this month, “not a single bill introduced by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission passed this legislative session,” even though Kondo himself publicly expressed a need for further legislation to eliminate fuzziness and ensure clarity around enforcement of the ethics code.

The Legislature likewise showed little interest in enacting lobbying reforms called for last year in a report from an independent study group working under the leadership of consultant Peter Adler. “Transparency & Influence, A White Paper from the Dialogue on Lobbying” argued for a range of common-sense transparency and disclosure reforms to address the D-minus grade Hawaii earned last year on a Center for Public Integrity scorecard grading policies intended to deter corruption. (Full disclosure: The study group’s work was funded in part by a grant from the Omidyar Group, “which represents the personal, professional and philanthropic interests of Civil Beat Publisher and CEO Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.”)

The recently completed session was not a banner year for ethics reform.

Legislators did provide $130,000 to develop an electronic system for financial, lobbyist and gift disclosures to handle and make more accessible the 4,000-plus reports the commission receives annually. They also passed three modest disclosure bills that, for instance, reduce the amount of anonymous donations a candidate can receive at a political function and strengthen reporting requirements for “noncandidate committees.”

Nevertheless, the recently completed session was not a banner year for ethics reform, or even a robust response to last year’s D-minus on the anti-corruption exam. So when Souki “encourages” the Commission “to propose a legislative package which addresses all of the specific practices that it or its staff has sought to impose over the last several years,” one wonders how heartfelt that encouragement may be.

The Ethics Commission agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, at minimum, signals that it is taking Kondo’s performance evaluation seriously. Of the first five agenda items, three pertain to Kondo. And in between the commission’s consideration of executive session minutes regarding the evaluation and a discussion of Kondo’s evaluation directly with him, the group is scheduled to have a discussion of Souki’s letter.

Entertaining theater, perhaps, but spectators shouldn’t be left wondering who orchestrated the plot.

If the commission has issues with its executive director’s performance, it should address them, but the decisions it makes should avoid what it so often seeks to prevent in its evaluation of others — even the appearance of impropriety.

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