The Honolulu Ethics Commission wants the city to lower the value of gifts accepted by city employees from $200 to $25, but it’s not interested in requiring gift disclosure forms.

The debate comes amid increased scrutiny over ethics rules after two former Hawaii legislators pleaded guilty to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes. Federal prosecutors brought charges of honest services wire fraud after ex-Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and ex-Rep. Ty Cullen failed to list the bribes on mandatory annual gift disclosures filed with the state.

The ethics commission has been preparing legislation for City Council consideration that would lower the gift threshold to $25 for many months. Its legal counsel, Laurie Wong-Nowinski, suggested during a regular meeting on Wednesday that the panel consider adding a gift disclosure requirement to enable federal intervention in case needed.

Laurie Wong-Nowinksi Honolulu Ethics Commission meeting Feb. 16, 2022
Laurie Wong-Nowinksi, legal counsel for the Honolulu Ethics Commission, suggested adding a gift disclosure requirement for city employees. But commission members dismissed the idea. Screenshot: Honolulu Ethics Commission/2022

“Given what has happened in the current political times, I wanted to bring this to the commission’s attention before we start introducing this legislation,” she said.

Commission members, however, dismissed the idea, saying local officials should be able to ferret out corruption and it was unlikely that anybody would self-report a violation.

“There are state criminal laws that prevent bribery. It’s just that the feds wouldn’t take it up,” Commissioner Victoria Marks, a retired judge, said during the meeting. “A crime is a crime.” 

Marks said the commission has “beat the gift thing to a pulp” with the proposed legislation. 

“People are not going to disclose if they are taking bribes,” she said. “We just need to go forward for what we already voted on.” 

The ethics commission plans to introduce its proposed legislation at the Honolulu City Council, giving council members the opportunity to review and possibly amend it.

The City and County of Honolulu used to require employees to disclose gifts from a single source that exceeded $200 in value, but the law changed in 2002 to prohibit all gifts over that threshold, so disclosure was deemed unnecessary.

“The thinking behind that was, well, if you’re not supposed to be taking any gifts over $200, then in theory, there’s supposed to be nothing to report,” Wong-Nowinski said.

But she said it could provide a tool for federal prosecution in the wake of the bribery scandal. “I’m concerned that if we don’t have that, let’s say a similar situation happens with us, there is no federal hook in order to prosecute these kinds of cases.”

Commission Chair David Monk said that wouldn’t be necessary.

“We don’t need federal intervention in order to prosecute bribery,” he said. “And if the feds have information about bribery occurring at the state level, then it seems to me that they can also share that with our state attorney general’s office or whatever the appropriate channel would be for state-level enforcement.”

Alexander Silvert, the former federal public defender who helped expose the Kealoha conspiracy case, said the city should welcome potential federal prosecution of corruption cases.

“This seems like a pretty simple fix, and it’s a fix that ensures there will be continued federal oversight,” he said. “How can that be bad?”

It’s fine to express confidence in local prosecutors, but there is no reason to exclude federal prosecutors, according to Silvert.

“The two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, if people in state or county knew there could be federal oversight or prosecution, I think that would only enhance people’s willingness to comply with the law,” he said.

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