Civil Beat’s yearlong fight over the release of financial disclosure statements for certain state board members wrapped up Wednesday after ethics officials told a Circuit Court judge the records were being released after all.

A recent policy decision by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission resulted in the public release of the annual financial statements. Civil Beat had asked for the records after the Legislature passed Act 230, which added 15 of the most powerful boards and commissions to the list of state employees who must disclose their financial interests. The commission at first balked at making the reports public, then changed its mind.

“The Ethics Commission finally implemented the intent of Act 230,” said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which represented the news outlet.

“The public now has the ability to review board members’ disclosures for potential financial conflicts of interest.”

First Circuit Court Building located at 777 Punchbowl street. photograph Cory Lum

Civil Beat’s lawsuit in 1st Circuit Court has been rendered moot because the Hawaii State Ethics Commission has released the financial disclosure statements that the news outlet was seeking.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On July 14, Civil Beat requested the 2014 disclosure statements for members of three of the 15 boards added to the list — the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Land Use Commission and Agribusiness Development Corporation Board of Directors.

The commission denied that request in part on July 29, saying any current board member who filed their disclosure form before the new law took effect had a privacy interest and therefore those records would not be released.

The law center, on behalf of Civil Beat, challenged that decision in court on Sept. 25. Six weeks later, Judge Rhonda Nishimura granted Civil Beat’s request for a preliminary injunction to require the commission to make those records public.

The state Attorney General’s office appealed the decision, delaying the matter for months.

In March, the commission decided that it would release the 2014 disclosure statements for board members who filed their 2015 reports by simply checking “no change” from the previous year. That policy resulted in the release of the records Civil Beat had sought.

“When this case started in 2014, the commission made clear that this information would not be publicly available for two years,” Black said. “But the Legislature had found that the commission did not have the ability to review these financial disclosures for conflicts of interest. As a result, unless someone forced the issue, these boards would continue to make decisions for two years without any oversight for financial conflicts.”

The financial disclosure statements 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 law allows the public to help uncover conflicts of interest of board members. Ethics Executive Director Les Kondo has said the commission lacks the resources to thoroughly review all of the reports and needs to rely on the public for help.

Some board members have complained the law infringes on their personal privacy.

By late July, 26 members from 10 state boards had quit since the Legislature passed the bill. In their resignation letters, they cited privacy concerns, personal reasons and fears over how people might use the information if it is posted online.

“Although it has taken almost a year, by making these records public, the Ethics Commission has fulfilled its constitutional obligation to hold the state’s public officials to the highest standards of ethical conduct,” Black said. “Because Civil Beat obtained the public access it requested, the case is over.”

Civil Beat Database Now Includes City Officials

As the lawsuit was playing out, Civil Beat built and published an online database to make it easy to search the financial disclosure records  filed by hundreds of top Hawaii officials and candidates for elected office.

Just because financial disclosures are public doesn’t mean the public can easily access them.

The Ethics Commission collects the disclosure statements each year from more than 1,900 state employees and then posts those that must be made public on its website. Not all are required to be made publicly available, including most lower-ranking state employees and members of less significant boards.

But disclosures for all 76 lawmakers, the governor, lieutenant governor, department heads and members of many top state boards and commissions are public.

While the commission posts those filings online, it’s tough to search the website and cross-reference people, companies or other information included in the reports. Civil Beat’s database was created to overcome that challenge.

The database was recently updated to include the financial disclosure statements that Honolulu city officials file with the Honolulu Ethics Commission, including Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and Corporation Counsel Donna Leong.

Civil Beat is also working to keep the rest of the database up to date, checking weekly for new filings and inputting them into our system.

Check out Civil Beat’s database here.

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