Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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There are two glaring problems at the Legislature that have contributed to the climate of corruption uncovered at the State Capitol last week (“Two Hawaii Lawmakers Charged In Bribery Scheme Over Cesspool Legislation”).

First is the level of unquestioned power and control legislative leadership wields.

Second, rules adopted by both chambers allow the House speaker and Senate president the power to waive financial conflicts of interest, including their own, appearing to bypass the Hawaii Ethics Commission and the laws it enforces.

When the Legislature enacted the Sunshine Law, it expressly stated, “it is the policy of this State that the formation and conduct of public policy — the discussions, deliberations, decisions, and actions of governmental agencies — shall be conducted as openly as possible.”

And then lawmakers exempted the Legislature from this public safeguard, allowing for backroom deals to pass and kill bills — which is the perfect breeding ground for corruption.

We have term limits on the governor (executive branch) and forced retirement at age 70 for judges (judicial branch); but members of our legislative branch are allowed to amass power, donors, and arrogance decade after decade.

Opening Day of the 2022 Legislature with plastic dividers during a surge in Covid-19 cases statewide. January 19, 2022.
Legislative leaders need to implement new policies in order to deter corruption and favoritism. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Legislative leaders kill any bill that would allow citizens a chance to vote to amend the state Constitution to impose term limits on them. And by the time a long-term incumbent is challenged in an election, the incumbent has such a huge campaign war chest that it is nearly impossible to unseat them.

While federal prosecutors may have had an easy time catching two legislators accepting bribes delivered in cars and bathrooms, they may have a much harder time “catching” legislators who are also private-practice attorneys simply delivering legal services to their corporate clients.

Lobbyists are required to disclose who is paying them to persuade lawmakers to pass or kill a bill; however, lawmakers hired as private attorneys by these same interests are bound by law to keep their attorney-client relationships confidential.

Every business in Hawaii is impacted by the ever-changing laws of our state. How convenient for those that can afford them, that three of the most powerful leaders in the House are available for hire as private attorneys.

Corporations and business owners could walk into any one, or all three, of their law practices and hand them large “retainer” checks in return for a broad range of legal services — and they would be protected by attorney-client confidentiality.

These legislators could even introduce a minimum-wage bill, wallow in the public accolades, and privately assure their business clients that the bill will go nowhere.

Why would an agro-chemical corporation, government contractor or a construction developer hire a regular lobbyist when they can hire an attorney who happens to be a legislative leader with unilateral power to get the job done?

“No conflict” has always been Senate president and House speaker’s response when presented with disclosures of financial conflicts on the floor of their respective chambers. The State Ethics Commission should review all these past declarations of “no conflict” and make its own determinations — too bad legislative leaders keep that agency insufficiently funded to do so.

There are solutions to mitigate corruption in the Legislature.

Prosecutors should dig deep into the campaign donations of every private-practice attorney serving as a lawmaker, and determine if their donors are also clients of the lawmaker’s law practice. Clients are not bound by the attorney-client privilege and can make this disclosure. Then there can be an examination of bills passed or killed that may have benefited them.

But what about the legislators’ law practice clients who never donate to their political campaigns? There is no way for the public to know what kind of collateral influence their attorney-client relationship brought them.

There are solutions to mitigate corruption in the Legislature.

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First, allocate an emergency appropriation to the State Ethics Commission to investigate past declarations of “no conflict” made by committee chairs, Senate president and House speaker.

Second, repeal the rule that allows the Senate president and House speaker to declare that no financial conflicts of interest exist for legislators or themselves. All legislators, including leadership, should be prohibited from discussing or voting on bills where potential financial conflicts exist until the State Ethics Commission makes that determination.

Third, ban lawmakers who have been “active-status” attorneys or profit-sharing partners in a law practice within the preceding six months, from serving as committee chair or other leadership positions.

Fourth, remove the Legislature’s exemption from the Sunshine Law.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, allow the public a chance to vote on term limits for legislators.

If the legislative leaders trying to distance themselves from the “bad apples” are really committed to stopping corruption at the Legislature, they would support these changes immediately.

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