Goodies gifted from lobbyists to lawmakers like manapua, PB&J sandwiches, musubi and trinkets are no longer allowed because of new state ethics rules that ban “gifts of aloha” for legislators.

On past opening days of the Legislature, and throughout session, lobbyists and the organizations they represent have showered Hawaii’s lawmakers with those small gifts and food. Giving gifts to lawmakers is generally banned under state law, but the statutes were ambiguous when it came to small items under $25.

The new ban on “gifts of aloha” is just one of dozens of new rules passed by the state Ethics Commission as the Legislature prepares to open the 2021 session next week. 

Lawmakers are no longer allowed to accept most small gift items, including food, under new rules approved by the state Ethics Commission. Anthony Quintano

The rules, which took effect in November, give a clearer framework for how state employees and the commission should abide by the ethics code. New chapters on lobbying and gift giving seek to provide clearer guidance in both of those areas.

Opening day for the Legislature is Wednesday, and in years past, lawmakers reported receiving numerous small gifts on that day as constituents and lobbyists alike flocked to their open offices.

A popular food item some lawmakers reported receiving on opening day last year included manapua from SanHi Government Strategies, Capitol Consultants, Oceanit and several other organizations that have interests in the issues before lawmakers or represent clients who do.

Manju and gau from the Hawaii State Teachers Association and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the Hawaii Youth Theatre also appeared on several lawmakers’ lists around opening day. Sen. J. Kalani English and other lawmakers were gifted stainless steel water bottles valued about $25 from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142.

Former state Sen. Milton Holt gifted House Speaker Scott Saiki a $50 platter of sashimi on opening day in 2020.

“Please don’t try to get creative.” — Dan Gluck, Ethics Commission Executive Director

The Ethics Commission previously allowed most of those types of gifts. Les Kondo, the state auditor and former director of the commission, said in 2011 that gifts of minimal value that could be given as a gesture of goodwill were acceptable.

Under the new rules, giving food and almost anything else to lawmakers is specifically prohibited. Dan Gluck, the executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said it has to do with the way the rules are set up.

“The starting point is, if there’s some kind of authority vested in state officials over the persons giving the gifts, then the state official shouldn’t be accepting the gifts,” he said.

For the Legislature, which makes laws that affect almost everyone in the state, that means no more small gifts. 

Gifts under the rules mean things that could have monetary value, Gluck said during a training for lobbyists earlier this week. So that doesn’t cover items like pens and notebooks, where, “if you tried to sell them, no one would pay you for it,” Gluck said. 

State ethics Commission Director Dan Gluck. 11 aug 2016
State Ethics Commission Director Dan Gluck says the main goal of the rules is to restore public faith in government. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

But gifts between government officials might still be OK. For example, the musubi several legislators reported receiving last year from former Rep. Calvin Say may still be permissible under the new rules.

Several lawmakers last year also reported receiving venison meat snacks from Maui Mayor Mike Victorino. Kauai County Mayor Derek Kawakami gifted chili pepper water to Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran and other lawmakers.

Other small gifts are still allowed under the rules such as lei, but no money lei, according to the new rules.

“So please don’t try to get creative,” Gluck said.

Travel, especially to conferences, is also still allowed under the new rules. Those have generally been permitted because the skills employees learn from conferences is seen as a benefit to the state.

Lawmakers also participate in numerous policy conferences around the country and the globe.

In fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, Senate President Ron Kouchi reported more than $25,000 worth of travel-related expenses, the most of any state lawmaker, which included hotel and meals covered by the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as similar accommodations from the Senate President’s Forum.

Rules Try To Clarify Lobbying

Beyond gift giving, the new rules also address the operations of lobbyists.

The rules more clearly define what lobbying is, like drafting and providing testimony or trying to sway state officials, such as the governor, on legislation or administrative rules.

Background research on policy issues that aren’t in front of lawmakers at a particular time doesn’t count as lobbying. But it may once the issue comes before lawmakers.

Bob Toyofuku, a veteran Hawaii lobbyist, says he is still seeking clarity on that provision and several others, including reporting lobbyist compensation.

“Almost everything we do is geared toward the issues of our client,” Toyofuku said, adding that could include collating lists of bills, background research and even just waiting for issues to crop up in the Legislature.

For example, if a client pays someone $100,000 a year as a retainer, that lobbyist may need to report the full amount even if they spend just a few hours a year actively trying to sway lawmakers.

Toyofuku says the larger amount, while it shows how much an organization might actually be spending, may not give the public a clear picture of what is being spent specifically on lobbying.

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