There were the meals, golf, drinks, parties and an event described as a “casino and karaoke night.” And then there were the prizes, including Apple Watches and a two-night stay at a luxury resort.
It almost sounds like the kind of all-expenses-included getaway advertised to tourists on the mainland.
But this was something called the Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials.
Its attendees and sponsors included some of the most powerful business interests in the state who had the chance to hobnob with the kind of government officials who have a profound influence on issues that affect them.
State and county laws have strict rules about government officials receiving gifts, particularly if it appears those gifts could have an influence on their actions. But conferences like the three-day planning retreat held last month on Kauai show how special interests are still able to wine and dine an array of public officials.
Dan Gluck, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, which enforces state ethics laws, said he could not comment specifically on the event on Kauai. But he said generally that acceptance of “even modest gifts of aloha may pose ethics concerns,” particularly if the people receiving the gifts have the power to regulate businesses or hand out state contracts.
“Similarly, gifts from vendors or contractors tend to raise significant concerns,” Gluck said.
The list of attendees for the Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials, which was given to Civil Beat by Kauai County last week, reads like a who’s who of Hawaii’s business elite.
There were executives from Hawaii’s largest private landowner and a major luxury developer, lobbyists from one of the state’s oldest and best-known agricultural and real estate companies, representatives of the political arm of the construction industry, and partners with politically connected law firms.
Also in attendance were government officials like members of the state Land Use Commission, Office of Planning, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and Department of Transportation; as well as planners, engineers, inspectors and supervisors from all four counties and several members of the Kauai County Council.
Most notorious, this was also the conference where Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi was caught on camera delivering an alcohol-infused and profanity-laced tribute to Bernard Carvalho Jr., the mayor of Kauai. The party in a hotel hospitality suite was paid for by “sponsors and individuals,” say Kauai County officials.
The Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials drew about 340 people to the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa on Sept. 21-23.
The conference included a number of events that would be expected at a gathering of government officials, like speeches, panel discussions and workshops. Kauai County, which hosted the conference, described some of the perks of attending on its website and in a program for the event.
There was a drawing where prizes included three Apple Watches and a two-night stay at the Four Seaons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina. Attendees could also win an unspecified prize for best costume at a reception on the first night of the conference. Several meals were included with the conference as well as a yoga session, an event described as “pau hana popcorn and libations” and another called “casino and karaoke night.” “Mahalo” gifts to speakers and presenters included Koloa Rum and Anahola Granola, both Kauai companies.
“If something feels wrong, it probably is.” — State Ethics Commission Director Dan Gluck
For an extra fee of $100, attendees could also sign up for a Na Pali boat tour, which included transportation, sea cave exploration, snorkel equipment, flotation devices, snacks, lunch, drinks and towels. A five-hour group tour by the same company typically costs $140 per person for adults.
For $85, they could golf at the resort’s Poipu Bay Golf Course, which included green fees, golf cart and lunch. Regular rates at the course run from $135 to $250.
Sarah Blane, a spokesperson for Kauai County, said attendees paid their own way to the conference and that the event came at almost no cost to taxpayers “with the exception of staff time and office supplies used for registration.”
But the funding was offset through corporate sponsorship from major builders, developers and land owners, including D.R. Horton Hawaii, SSFM International, Alexander & Baldwin, R.M. Towill Corp. and Kamehameha Schools.
Registration was open to the public at a cost of roughly $400 per person, according to Kauai. Companies could sponsor the conference at tiers starting at $1,000 and rising to $5,000. Blane said the sponsors helped offset the cost of the conference while registration fees and sponsorships paid for the use of the facility, meals, materials and travel expenses for speakers and presenters coming from the mainland.
Sponsors were listed by name in the conference program, which also included corporate logos and in some cases advertisements.
The conference program used the perks as a way to promote topics that otherwise might seem dry, like workshops on geographic information systems:
This year’s pre-conference mobile and GIS workshops are all about Kakou — working together in partnership to create renewable energy, effectively manage our coastal and ocean resources, generate community revitalization, and preserve community identity and history. From sailing the majestic Na Pali out west to biking along Ke Ala Hele Makalae Shared Coastal Path in the east, we’ve pulled out all the stops to make your first experience at HCPO engaging, inspirational, and fun!
The companies and county defended the congress as an invaluable way for planners to meet with colleagues to talk about how they can improve the planning process, receive updates on laws and technology, and discuss pressing issues and projects.
They said private sponsorship is common, legal and encouraged. The planning conference is an annual event that rotates among the four counties.
Here is what the state Code of Ethics, known as Chapter 84, says about gifts:
Similar language is in county charters, including Kauai’s.
At the state level, recipients must report any gifts totaling $200, individually or in aggregate, to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.
State laws on lobbying, known as Chapter 97, say that expenditures of $750 or more “for the purpose of attempting to influence legislative or administrative action or a ballot issue by communicating or urging others to communicate with public officials” must be reported.
The expenditures include entertainment and events; receptions, meals, food and beverages; and gifts.
The head of the agency tasked with enforcing the state Code of Ethics said it is important for government officials to understand what the law says.
“We do not have all the details regarding the event on Kauai, but in any situation where state employees receive a gift – including free food and drinks – the Hawaii State Ethics Commission usually looks at three factors: value, donor relationship and state purpose,” said Gluck.
If the state official receiving the gift regulates or investigates the person or business giving the gift, Gluck said the state Ethics Code “generally prohibits acceptance,” with some exceptions.
“Generally, we advise state officials to follow their instincts when it comes to ethics issues,” he said. “If there is a front-page news story about what you’ve done – accepting a gift, attending some event, and so on – would you be proud or would you be embarrassed?
“If something feels wrong, it probably is. If you are not sure, call the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, and we would be happy to advise you.”
Corie Tanida, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, questioned whether some conference activities such as boat tours, golfing and expensive freebies were “within the spirit” of state and county ethics codes.
Her group works to curb the excess influence of money in politics and to ensure government serves the common good rather than special interests.
“It is concerning, because we do place our trust in government officials — not just elected officials but employees,” she said. “Everybody has to follow the state code or the code of their respective county. It specifically says we place trust in officials, so they in turn are held to the highest ethical standards.”
Tanida said she did not know all the facts of the Kauai conference, and she deferred to the Ethics Commission regarding possible violations.
But she also noted that the ethics codes make clear that government officials “should avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
An inquiry to the Kauai County Board of Ethics was referred to the county’s public information office.
Jan Yamane, executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission, said she could not comment on the specifics of the Kauai conference.
“But we do encourage city elected officials and employees to reach out to us for advice and to help answer any questions,” she said.
The Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials is an informal group comprised of various county planning departments as well as other planning-related and land-use agencies. Its purpose, according to Kauai County, is to organize the annual conferences.
Blane, the county spokesperson, said in an email state ethics do not apply to counties, “as each county has its own Ethics Code.”
Regardless, she said the county followed its own rules regarding ethics:
The Planning Department followed the County Code of Ethics when preparing for the conference, as it fully disclosed the sponsors and in-kind donors who helped to make the conference possible.
Regarding the Mahalo gifts, we purposefully worked only with business participants in the County’s Office of Economic Development’s “Kauai Made” program to provide a marketing opportunity for homegrown products.
Items for speakers and presenters were clearly disclosed in the conference brochure.
“It is not new, nor uncommon, for private industry to sponsor government events,” Blane said.
Other examples, she said, include the 2016 Maui Energy Conference, hosted by the Maui County Office of Economic Development and the Maui Economic Development Board, the latter a nonprofit.
The Maui Energy Conference brought energy experts and stakeholders from across the country “to learn about the latest advances in clean energy” and how Hawaii plans to achieve a renewable portfolio standard of 100 percent.
Major sponsors included the electric companies of three counties and NextEra Energy of Florida, which at the time was seeking state approval to purchase Hawaiian Electric Industries, the parent company of the three utilities. Lower-tiered sponsors included SunEdison, Hitachi, Pacific Biodiesel and Ulupono Initiative, which was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.
Another example she pointed to: The World Conservation Congress, although the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which put on the event in Honolulu this year, is not a government agency, nor does it have direct business with the state.
Sponsors of the IUCN conference included several foundations, such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Hawaii Community Foundation (the recipient of a $50 million Omidyar donation in 2009) as well as Ulupono, Dell, Shell, Kamehameha Schools and Outrigger Hotels and Resorts.
“It is not new, nor uncommon, for private industry to sponsor government events.” — Kauai County Spokesperson Sarah Blane
Blane said Kauai County is encouraged to reach out to the private sector for events like the planning conference.
She pointed to a section of the Kauai County Charter that states: “In the performance of its functions, each department shall cooperate with private organizations and with organizations of the governments of the United States, the State, and any other state, and with any of their political subdivisions having similar functions.”
Hotel rooms to accommodate conference staff, she explained, were included in the conference package with the Hyatt which included the use of ballrooms, meeting rooms and other facilities.
“Conferences, such as the annual HCPO conference, the Maui Energy Conference and the like, give those from a wide array of backgrounds and areas of expertise an opportunity to collaborate and have in-depth discussions on critical issues that affect the state,” said Blane. “This year’s ‘Tao of Planning’ themed conference intentionally created an environment that fostered creativity, which is a critical component of solving serious and complex issues, such as land use, housing and transportation planning.”
The chief sponsor of the planning congress this year was Kaiser Permanente, the health care company that is working to take control of three state medical facilities in Maui County.
Blane said Kaiser “is not an organization that would typically be suspected of ‘lobbying’ the county Planning Department. Further, all conferees and speakers were treated equally, regardless of whether they were from the private or public sector.”
Civil Beat contacted all the sponsors listed in the congress’s program. A handful responded, most with prepared statements.
Kaiser spokeswoman Laura Lott wrote that the company chose to become a sponsor to support planning that included facilities to encourage healthy habits.
“Our funding of the Kauai event was specifically to support keynote speaker and conference sessions in alignment with our broader community planning efforts e.g. bike paths, walkable communities, safe school routes, transportation, age-friendly, etc.,” she wrote.
Law firm Carlsmith Ball, with offices throughout Hawaii and in Los Angeles, takes part in a variety of conferences that address community issues. The firm handles real estate and land development, and helps clients draft legislation and secure government contracts, among other practice areas.
“We believe the Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials provides an opportunity for leaders across government, business and nonprofit organizations to come together in an open forum to meet, learn, and collaborate,” the company wrote in a prepared statement. “We are proud to join the other corporate sponsors in supporting these discussions. “
Honolulu real estate developer Alexander & Baldwin is proud to have sponsored the event for decades, spokesperson Tran Chinery wrote.
“This year’s event was sponsored by 17 organizations, including A&B, with funds covering general conference expenses for the benefit of all attendees, not public planning officials specifically,” she wrote.
In an interview, Michael Matsumoto, president of SSFM International, said the congress was a chance for peers in the planning community to talk. The company manages projects and provides planning services. It’s also one of the contractors for the Honolulu rail project, the largest public works project in state history. The rail project has come under fire for going over-budget and facing significant delays.
Matsumoto said organizers send out a flier every year to potential sponsors. For several years, SSFM has agreed to take part.
“Every organization makes a decision about supporting activities in the community,” he said.
Steve Colón, president of the Hawaii Region for Hunt Companies, wrote in a prepared statement that the developer has underwritten the conference for many years “to encourage and enhance our employees’ continuing education. We find it a valuable conference to learn about new developments with urban planning in Hawaii.” Hunt paid for general conference expenses, not any specific event.
Representatives of Monsanto, Belt Collins Hawaii, Group 70 International, PBR Hawaii & Associates, The Resort Group, Queen Liliuokalani Trust, Wilson Okamoto Corp., Watanabe Ing, CH2M, CBRE and Pacific Resource Partnership also participated at the event, according to Kauai County.
Kauai County officials said it is essential for government officials to interact with the private sector.
“Government is tasked with creating public policy that affects each and every one of our citizens, visitors and businesses,” said Blane, the county spokesperson. “For government to work in a silo would be irresponsible and against the best interest of the community we serve. Many great initiatives have failed simply due to a lack of community engagement, partnership and collaboration.”
A change in ethics laws could be in the works.
Gluck, who took office office as director of the state Ethics Commission on Aug. 1, has been meeting with department heads, lobbyists, community organizations and others to solicit feedback on “what is working and what is not” with the ethics code and lobbying laws.
Possible policy and statute changes could be addressed at an Ethics Commission public meeting Oct. 20.
Read the full list of conference attendees: