After meeting for more than three hours Wednesday, the State Ethics Commission retreated into a closed executive session to consider the fate of its executive director, Honolulu attorney Les Kondo.
But the meeting ended about 5 p.m. with no decision on whether Kondo would stay on as executive director. Kondo declined comment except to say the discussion would continue at a later date.
Wednesday’s session is the last phase of a confidential personnel evaluation of Kondo that has extended over several months, and has been rumored to have sparked a move by some commissioners to seek his termination.
Kondo has generated controversy since he was appointed to his post in 2011 as the commission, in response to his guidance, has adopted increasingly restrictive interpretations of several key provisions of the state ethics law.
Former Hawaii Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, left, testifies on support of Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo on Wednesday as Kondo looks on. The commission is evaluating Kondo’s performance amid criticism from some lawmakers and commissioners.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Kondo has been criticized by legislators for clamping down on gifts from lobbyists, including free tickets to charitable events. In a scathing April 26 letter, House Speaker Joe Souki called on the commission to “disavow” all of its new and more restrictive positions taken since Kondo’s appointment.
Little has been made public about Kondo’s review, and nothing has been revealed about the criteria or procedures that have been used.
However, in a surprise move, Kondo publicly disclosed that the review process had rated him “poor” in several categories, including handling of the news media,relationships with other agencies, and presenting clear legal analysis to the commission.
In comments made to the commission during the period for public testimony, Kondo questioned the basis for the commission’s findings.
“I feel like you guys have evaluated me on very limited limited interactions that you’ve had with me,” Kondo said. “You see me one time every month for two hours. But every month, I work 200 or more hours. Based on those numbers, you have very little personal information about what I do, and in many cases, I suggest that you have no personal information about my job performance.”
Kondo noted that his performance was rated as “outstanding” in his last evaluation in 2012.
And since that time, Kondo said, he had not received any feedback from anyone that his performance was substandard.
“Since that time (2012), I haven’t changed. I do my job the same way. I interact with legislators and state officials the same way. I interact with you, I run meetings the same way. The only difference is that we have new commissioners.”
Kondo was lauded by public interest groups and others he has worked with for his efforts to raise ethical standards.
Testimony presented at Wednesday’s public meeting was almost uniformly positive. Chuck Totto, executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission, urged the commission to recognize the difficulty in serving as head of an ethics agency.
“In this position, you are mandated to speak truth to power, which is one of the most difficult things to do,” Totto said.
Kristin E. Izumi-Nitao, executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission, called Kondo “a good man, smart, intelligent, and a hard worker” who shared the common mission of assuring accountability, transparency and public trust.
“He is not afraid to fight the fight that has to be fought,” Izumi-Nitao said.
Bruce Coppa, former chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, praised Kondo for working closely with the governor’s office to educate new appointees about the ethics laws and providing good, timely guidance when called upon.
And former Republican Lt. Governor Duke Aiona described Kondo as independent, intelligent, and dedicated to public service.
Testimony also came from Catherine Awakuni Colón, director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, as well as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and several individuals.
The one sour note came from representatives of the Department of Education, including Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, who criticized the commission’s handling of the question of whether it violates provisions of the ethics law for teachers to receive free trips and other benefits for organizing educational trips for their students. They were also highly critical of what they said was inconsistent or unclear advice given by the commission’s staff as the agency reviewed the DOE’s handling of educational trips.
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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.