A legislative commission tasked with increasing transparency in government is calling on lawmakers to enact more than a dozen measures aimed at preventing public corruption and increasing oversight of money in politics.

The seven-member Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct released its interim report Thursday that details suggested changes to bills moving through the Legislature.

If all of the commission’s recommendations passed, legislators’ public expenses would be posted online and citizens could see lowered costs for public records.

Public boards would be required to archive recordings of their meetings. Politicians would once again be required to file advertising disclosures. And all government employees would be required to undergo annual ethics training.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said lawmakers would consider the recommendations as bills move through committees.

“We’ll consider them, but I can’t say what will ultimately be decided,” he said.

The commission will spend the rest of the year working on a final report, due to the Legislature in December, with recommendations for reforms that could be enacted next session.

Hawaii State Capitol.
A commission to improve government conduct sent more than a dozen recommendations to lawmakers Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The House convened the commission after two former lawmakers pleaded guilty to felony fraud charges in a bribery case in February.

The commission’s members include retired Judge Dan Foley; Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris; Campaign Spending Commission Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao; Common Cause Hawaii Executive Director Sandy Ma; Janet Mason, from the League of Women Voters of Hawaii; former Rep. Barbara Marumoto; and former Hawaii U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni.

The commission recommended amendments to bills instead of entirely new measures because the deadline to introduce bills passed in January. Some of the commission’s recommendations have already gained traction.

A joint committee of House lawmakers Thursday afternoon voted unanimously to advance Senate Bill 555, which would prohibit fundraising during session. The latest draft of the bill includes some of the commission’s recommendations.

Lawmakers amended the bill, extending the fundraising prohibition to county councils as well as county mayors and the governor.

County officials would be prohibited from holding fundraisers if the council is in session. Instances in which the governor would not be allowed to fundraise, as well as other specific language in the bill, is still being worked out, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Angus McKelvey said.

There’s long been concern that in-session fundraising gives the appearance that donors are paying off lawmakers. Others are concerned that banning in-session fundraisers could hurt the campaigns of neighbor island lawmakers, who are only on Oahu for part of the year.

Lawmakers also voiced concern during the committee hearing over the ban on fundraising by council members. Most are in-session for a majority of the year. But McKelvey dismissed those complaints.

“This is to say that business as usual ain’t going to cut it anymore,” McKelvey said.

The commission called for a total ban of any donations during the session. But McKelvey said that provision on donations could not be included because it would not comport with SB 555’s title, “Relating To Campaign Fundraising.”

The majority of the measures the commission recommended dealt with campaign finance laws.

Included in the report are bills that would make it easier for the Campaign Spending Commission to crackdown on campaign finance scofflaws, increase fines levied against super PACs, and require political action committees to file more advertising disclosure reports.

State Campaign Spending Commission Kristin Izumi Nitao speaks to John Carroll.
A majority of the commission’s bills dealt with campaign finance. Campaign Spending Commission Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao hopes the commission takes up more of those issues before December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

On Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed another of the commission’s bills dealing with ethics training.

House Bill 1475 would require lawmakers and all other state employees to undergo regular ethics training every four years. Right now, there’s no requirement that state employees continue to receive updated training.

Harris, the ethics commission director, said access to applications like Zoom made it possible to train much larger groups. In the past, the commission was limited to in-person trainings.

Not all the bills the commission recommended survived the session.

Senate Bill 2930 would have provided funding for a new fraud unit in the Attorney General’s Office that would investigate public corruption. The measure never got a hearing in the House. Still, Saiki said that a new unit could be funded through the state budget.

More Work Ahead

The report released Thursday doesn’t mark the end of the commission’s work. A final report to recommend legislation for the 2023 session is due Dec. 1.

The commission may consider term limits, election reform and limits on campaign contributions. It could discuss lobbying reform, including requiring lawmakers to keep a log of visits by lobbyists or requiring lobbying organizations to disclose a list of bills that they support or oppose.

The commission could also consider a requirement that lawmakers disclose the backers of bills for measures introduced “by request.”

Izumi-Nitao, of the campaign spending commission, hopes the commission would also consider public funding for elections to reduce the influence of money in politics.

In Hawaii, candidate campaigns are prohibited from contributing directly to other campaigns. However, some lawmakers have skirted that rule by using campaign funds to buy tickets to another lawmaker’s fundraiser.

Izumi-Nitao said she wants to take aim at that practice legislative incumbents use to amass support and exert influence over their fellow legislators.

Although the commission’s meetings in March were closed to the public, those conducted between April and December would be open to the public.

Harris said the commission plans to make Zoom links available so that the public can participate in meetings going forward.

Read the report below.

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