A historic $2 billion budget surplus paved the way for major funding initiatives for Hawaiian homesteads, affordable housing and a slew of other initiatives.
But those funding proposals have overshadowed another major element this legislative session: a renewed focus on government ethics and corruption brought in the wake of bribery charges involving two former lawmakers.
In February, J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen both pleaded guilty to accepting bribes as part of a scheme to influence wastewater legislation. They are scheduled to appear in federal court for sentencing in July.
The charges spurred internal investigations in both the House and Senate into the voting records of Cullen and English. However, those investigations did not yield any new findings that could raise additional suspicion of the former lawmakers’ past conduct, legislators said.
Criminal charges against Cullen and English brought by federal authorities also led to the creation of a group to address government conduct. Now, lawmakers, and many in the public, will be looking to this new Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct for proposals on how to tighten up ethics laws and increase government transparency ahead of the 2023 legislative session, which opens in January.
The commission has already made beefing up the state’s law enforcement capabilities to weed out corruption a top priority.
In March, the commission recommended that the Legislature approve 14 bills aimed at increasing oversight of money in politics and beefing up ethics rules.
Eight of those measures focusing on the areas of campaign finance, government records and ethics cleared the Legislature before the 2022 session ended Thursday.
Those include bills that would allow the Campaign Spending Commission to levy fines against rule violators in addition to pursuing criminal charges, ban lawmakers from holding fundraisers while in session, limit how much money the government can charge its citizens for public records, require government boards to archive video and audio recordings of meetings, require state boards to make meeting materials available within 48 hours of a public meeting, and require state employees and legislators to attend ethics training.
Another proposal to beef up the state Attorney General’s office with new units to investigate corruption and sex trafficking did not pass. However lawmakers did include funding for 13 new deputy attorneys general positions “focusing on areas including human trafficking abatement, public safety, criminal justice, and legislation,” according to a press release on the state budget bill.
Other measures that fell short include those to raise fines for super PACs in the state, clarify rules around gifts to government officials and require political candidates to file advertising disclosures again.
And although the Legislature approved Senate Bill 555, the ban on in-session fundraisers, lawmakers stopped short of taking up the commission’s recommendation to ban the receipt of any campaign contributions during session.
That’s a provision that Gov. David Ige said he would support.
“It’s more than just having a fundraising event, it really is about limiting fundraising and soliciting and asking for donations, would be what would make a difference,” Ige said during an interview Friday.
But asked for an assessment of how lawmakers did this session in the areas of government ethics and what more they could do, Ige said there aren’t many more new ways to prevent bribery.
“The ethics laws are pretty clear. I have to believe that Sen. English and Rep. Cullen knew that they were being compensated for taking legislative action, which is clearly not allowed within the law. I don’t know what more can be done,” the governor said.
Barbara Marumoto feels the same way. She’s a former legislator and a member of the standards commission. She said the focus should be on beefing up resources for state investigators so they can carry out investigations on public officials and other state employees.
“You can’t legislate morality,” Marumoto said. “I wish we could.”
The commission set a packed agenda for the summer during its first public meeting in April. Marumoto will team up with former Hawaii U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni to consider increased criminal penalties and additional tools for state law enforcement agencies.
During June and July the commission could also consider additional rules for lobbyists, term limits for lawmakers, and reforming campaign finance and open government laws.
Senate President Ron Kouchi said he will be looking forward to the commission’s work and hopes they will deliver a “more robust package heading into next session.”
House Speaker Scott Saiki said Thursday during a press conference that “there’s always more work to be done when it comes to ethics reform.”
“We will absolutely take on more,” he said.
When asked what more specifically the Legislature ought to do, Saiki said he will rely on the commission to come up with recommendations.
“I know they’re working really hard right now on different kinds of topics,” he said, and the commission will report back to lawmakers in December.
He noted that House policy in recent years has been to require annual ethics training for House members, and the House has also had training with the Campaign Spending Commission. “We’re trying to self-educate the House members internally,” he said.
Both the House and Senate conducted reviews of Cullen’s and English’s voting records going back to 2015, the year prosecutors allege they began taking bribes from a Honolulu businessman to influence legislation.
Those investigations have appeared to be unfruitful.
Jacob Aki, a Senate spokesman, said Kouchi’s office led the Senate’s review of English’s record.
But Aki said the Senate researchers had some difficulties determining what criteria they would use to measure how English may have influenced legislation. Federal prosecutors allege that English accepted thousands of dollars in 2020 to first introduce and then kill a wastewater bill.
While it’s clear English was the introducer, it’s not clear what his role was in killing the measure.
“Really the only measurable they could find was close votes,” Aki said. In other words, votes on bills where English could have had a determining vote.
However, those votes in the Senate – which generally reaches consensus on issues behind closed doors – are rare. One of the only close votes in recent years came in 2019, a 13-12 vote to pass a measure that would allow the state to collect taxes on short-term vacation rentals.
Aki said the Senate also examined any bills dealing with water, including measures to regulate water resources in East Maui and another to pilot a water scalping facility.
While federal attorneys point to the water scalping bill in charges against Cullen, the Senate passed the measure unanimously.
“Nothing stood out,” Aki said.
It was a similar story in the House. Besides the measures U.S. attorneys point to in the former lawmakers’ charging documents, none arose suspicion in the House.
“It didn’t appear that any of the other bills relating to wastewater had moved through the Legislature,” Saiki said. “We didn’t really find a lot from our review.”
Saiki said the House also examined Cullen’s requests for capital improvement projects for his district. Most were for improvements to schools. Saiki said the House may look at other issues regarding Cullen, but he isn’t sure what those are yet.
Cullen and English took bribes from Honolulu businessman Milton Choy, whose family and business associates have donated upwards of $300,000 to political candidates in the last decade.
Earlier this year, more than two dozen isle politicians gave amounts equal to Choy’s donations to the state Campaign Spending Commission.
Twenty-nine isle candidates gave a combined total of $130,650 to the commission. Others who received donations from Choy but have not given money to the commission said they were electing to give the money to charity instead, KHON2 reported.
Those donations have contributed to a fund totaling $1.4 million that could be used to publicly finance campaigns, according to the commission’s associate director, Tony Baldomero.
Lawmakers also appear more cognizant of the need to avoid even the appearance of impropriety in their work. Not a single state legislator held a fundraising event during this year’s session. Though many rushed to begin campaigning, and fundraising, in the days after.