Two Hawaii lawmakers have rejected a request from a nonprofit organization seeking correspondence between the legislators and biotech companies or groups representing their interests.

The Hawaii Center for Food Safety asked five lawmakers to share all their communications with seed companies such as Monsanto — as well as organizations representing them — regarding genetically engineered crops and bills related to buffer zones and pesticide use.

The center lobbied unsuccessfully this year for bills to require large agricultural companies to disclose how they use pesticides and impose buffer zones for applying pesticides around schools.

Reps. Richard Onishi and Clift Tsuji denied the request outright, each explaining in identical language they won’t release the files in part because the “documents are part of legislator’s personal files and/or predecisional in nature.”

Ways and Means chair Senator Jill Tokuda makes her way thru to her office as supporters of SB1037 sit in the hallway fronting her office.  3 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, right, makes her way to her office on the second floor of the Capitol last March, passing people who hoped to convince her to call a hearing on a bill to impose buffer zones for pesticide spraying around schools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sens. Rosalyn Baker, Clarence Nishihara and Jill Tokuda each replied with their own identical language that they were “unable to respond at this time” because the “language of the request was overly broad, vague, and ambiguous.”

Senate spokeswoman Jill Kuramoto emphasized in an email that the senators sought further clarification of the request and didn’t deny it.

“Depending upon the nature of the information asked for, the Senate intends to comply with the law,” she wrote, noting that the senators haven’t received a revised request.

Onishi and Tsuji did not reply to requests for comment.

The center has appealed the responses to the state Office of Information Practices. The nonprofit’s director, Ashley Lukens, said “this effort comes out of many years of communities organizing to try to get more transparency around how the industry is impacting government policy.”

“I think it’s in the best interest of all our elected officials to be transparent in how they’re working with the industry,” she said.

“The Center for Food Safety raises a legitimate concern about access to these records,” said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. The nonprofit organization, which is funded by Civil Beat publisher Pierre Omidyar, advocates for government transparency.

“The legislative process is a public one,” Black said. “If an organization seeks to influence legislation, then its communications with legislators should be publicly accessible.”

Black added that the Office of Information Practices can now clarify the exemption for legislators’ personal files “that has been unexplained for more than two decades.”

It’s unclear how long the appeal process will take. The Office of Information Practices is well known for its huge backlog and long delays, making some decisions irrelevant by the time they’re issued. One reporter’s request for a toxicology report in a drunk driving incident in 2010 took four years to resolve.

About the Author