WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele’s nearly four-month absence from the nation’s capital is now raising questions about whether he has violated House ethics rules regarding his employment as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot.

Civil Beat published a story about Kahele’s voting record Monday that detailed how the first-term congressman was using Covid-19 proxy voting protocols to stay home in the islands where he is mulling a campaign for governor.

The piece gained significant traction with national news outlets, from Politico to The Daily Beast and Punchbowl News. Politico and Punchbowl News did stories focusing on the fact that Kahele is still working for Hawaiian Airlines while also representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

Senator Kai Kahele during Hawaiian Affairs DHHL Aila meeting.
Kai Kahele is now being asked about his work for Hawaiian Airlines in Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

House ethics rules state that in 2022 members of Congress cannot earn more than $29,895 from an outside employer. Punchbowl News pointed out that Hawaiian Airlines hires new pilots at a pay rate of $81 an hour. Kahele has worked for the company since at least 2016 when he was first appointed to public office.

 

Kahele’s office told both Punchbowl News and Politico that Kahele earns less than the outside income threshold allowed under the ethics rules.

Kahele spokesman Michael Ahn told Politico that Kahele is “fully in compliance with Ethics.” Ahn added that Kahele is an active member of the Air Line Pilots Association union and is active with Hawaiian Airlines as a commercial pilot.

“He does fly occasional flights to maintain his certification,” Ahn said of Kahele, but that he is on a “drastically reduced schedule to maintain his active status.”

Kahele’s financial disclosure statements filed with the House Clerk’s Office show he earned $120,000 in 2020 working for Hawaiian Airlines, but because he was not yet elected he was not subject to the earned income limits.

Kahele, who also serves in the Hawaii Air National Guard, has yet to file his financial disclosure statement for 2021, and has until May to do so or request an extension.

“Congress doesn’t do a good job of policing itself. There are a lot of gaps in the rules.” — Delaney Marsco, Campaign Legal Center

Kahele’s office did not respond to Civil Beat’s questions Tuesday about his work with Hawaiian Airlines or to a request for an interview with the congressman to discuss his work with the company. Previously, Kahele’s office said he was not available to talk about proxy voting.

The office also could not provide Civil Beat with any documentation backing up its statements to Politico and Punchbowl News that Kahele was in full compliance with House ethics rules.

Kahele’s potential ethical issue goes beyond how much he gets paid by Hawaiian Airlines.

The company’s political action committee has donated thousands of dollars to Kahele’s campaign. It also has business before two committees Kahele sits on — Transportation and Armed Services.

Federal records show that Hawaiian Airlines lobbied Congress on at least six bills on which Kahele was a co-sponsor, including the Fair and Open Skies Act, which aimed to address labor concerns and curb competition from foreign air carriers.

When he was running for Congress, Kahele, whose wife works as a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant, would often pilot the leg from Honolulu to Boston so he could travel to Washington to campaign.

House ethics rules are murky when it comes to conflicts of interest, according to Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel in ethics at the Campaign Legal Center. In general, she said it’s up to the member to report whether they have a financial interest in legislation, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude them from voting or moving a bill forward.

“The rules are pretty vague,” Marsco said. “It’s really up to the member’s discretion on whether they decide to take action on certain matters.”

Another concern is that the House Ethics Committee is not an independent body, she said. It’s made up of other members of Congress.

“Congress doesn’t do a good job of policing itself,” Marsco said. “There are a lot of gaps in the rules.”

Alex Da Silva, a spokesman for Hawaiian Airlines, did not provide much information about Kahele’s status with the company, only saying that he “remains an active employee.”

In regards to political activities, Da Silva said “we engage with Hawai’i’s entire congressional delegation on aviation industry issues regularly, and conduct our political activities ethically and responsibly in accordance with established ethics rules.”

He did not provide information about how much Kahele was getting paid or how often he was flying for the company.

Quality journalism takes time.

A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
 
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
 
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.

About the Author