Chad Blair: Lawmakers Don't Seem Interested In Doing Anything About Corruption - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Civil Beat’s 2022 candidate Q&As have proven very popular with both candidates and readers. It’s clear from our traffic data that they are being well consumed in advance of the Aug. 13 primary, likely helping voters make their decisions.

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Because of all the political corruption cases of late — from the Kealoha saga that began several years ago but continues and on through the Cullen-English bribery cases just this spring — Civil Beat editors gave particular attention to questions about ethics reform and open governance. That’s why we asked about lobbying, the Sunshine and open records laws, fundraising, transparency and accountability.

The answers range broadly, but some patterns emerge — including a disappointing trend from incumbent legislators who largely declined to be specific about what the Legislature should do.

Instead, many responses were similar to House Speaker Scott Saiki, who said in his questionnaire, “Following the legislative corruption indictments, I asked the House to create an independent commission to assess and recommend improvements to our ethics laws.”

Saiki concluded the Q&A section on reform with this sentence: “The House has asked the Foley Commission to assess these topics and I am awaiting its final recommendations.”

Saiki deserves credit for forming the commission, and for completing the Q&A — something Senate President Ron Kouchi skipped entirely.

But it feels like a dodge, one that a number of other lawmakers also took.

Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, for example: “I will take a look at what the House commission suggests and any recommendations from my own community.”

Opening Day of the 2022 Legislature with plastic dividers during a surge in Covid-19 cases statewide. January 19, 2022.
Many legislative incumbents are likely to win reelection. Will they be inclined to enact real ethics reform? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

What I had hoped to see more of was comment on findings and recommendations the commission is already considering, as its final report is not due until Dec. 1 — well after the general election. Among them are proposals to expand conflict of interest provisions, to require disclosure of people or groups requesting bills “by request,” and increased penalties and investigative tools for law enforcement agencies to specifically address fraud and public corruption.

It is the winners of the legislative races, after all, who will decide what to do with the commission’s report — if they do anything at all.

Many legislators also singled out for praise the passage of Senate Bill 555 banning fundraisers during session.

“It passed the Legislature, because I believe no fundraisers should be held while we are voting on bills,” said Rep. John Mizuno.

The problem with SB 555 is that it does not actually ban receiving funds during session — the very same time frame in which special interests are trying to influence the outcome of legislation.

That said, I give Sen. Karl Rhoads props for at least offering a rationale for the practice:

As an incumbent, banning fundraising during the legislative session would be to my advantage. Challengers generally start an election year with nothing in the bank. In contrast, I had $110,453.96 on Dec. 31. Banning fundraising from January to May would virtually assure incumbents’ victories. Ballots arrive in late July. That leaves 10 weeks between the end of the Legislature’s regular session and when people start to vote. It would be very difficult to raise the kind of money you need to win in that window.

Point taken. But as my colleague Blaze Lovell pointed out recently, Leg office holders accepted half-a-million dollars worth of campaign cash during the 2022 session even as there were calls to end the practice.

As well, the big donations made by the likes of federal contractor Martin Kao, local businessman Dennis Mitsunaga and others have rightly become fodder in the 2022 elections. And former Rep. Ty Cullen and former state Sen. J. Kalani English weren’t run-of-the-mill legislators but, respectively, the vice chair of the House Finance Committee and the Senate majority leader.

It’s why I find this comment from legislative candidate Gary Gill so spot on: “Kalani English and Ty Cullen taking bribes really angers me. This violation of the public trust does tremendous damage to our democracy especially in these times of public cynicism.”

Gill, a former Honolulu City Council member, says he still believes that “the overwhelming majority” of elected officials “are honestly pursuing the public interest as best they can.”

I certainly hope so, but I am becoming much more cynical these days. And that it might be more widespread comes to mind when I read a comment like this one from House candidate Nick Nikhilananda: “It was my state senator, whom I have known for 30 years, who plead guilty to taking a bribe; thus it hits quite close to home. It is my sense that there are others and other action which rises to the level bordering on corruption.”

Paying And Playing

Hawaii’s entrenched pay-to-play culture was most recently on display at a June fundraiser hosted by an energy lobbyist that brought in tens of thousands of dollars for two Hawaii lawmakers who were responsible for passing legislation important to the lobbyist.

Speaking of those two senators, I did appreciate this comment from Glenn Wakai: “If the public really wants money out of politics, let’s go down the road of publicly financed elections. That way everyone, incumbent and challengers will have the same amount of fuel at the starting line. Will the public then gripe about their taxes being used to elect someone they don’t like?”

The other senator, Donovan Dela Cruz, rightly noted that the Leg added new positions within the Department of the Attorney General to enforce government corruption and white-collar crime, and that legislators go through regular ethics training “to not violate ethics laws and rules.”

Senate Hawaii Capitol Closing Day Sine Die
The state House of Representatives formed the Foley commission to look at revising standards of conduct. But will the state Senate give its recommendations serious consideration? Blaze Lovell/CivilBeat/2022

But he also declined to say whether he’d open the conference committee period — the same period in which Dela Cruz managed to ram through that same energy bill with little public awareness.

“The Legislature has many measures in place to ensure transparency and accessibility,” he wrote. “All informational briefings, committee hearings, conference committees and floor sessions provide options for in-person attendance or virtual participation.”

On that last point — virtual participation — many lawmakers explained that it was Covid-19 that led the Legislature to place all hearings online.

“I love that technology has allowed virtual testimony, which makes testifying easier for seniors, working people and those on the neighbor islands,” wrote Rep. Scot Matayoshi.

I do too, but I wish it had not taken a pandemic to make it happen. And what remains firmly behind closed doors are private meetings between legislators. That’s because the Leg exempted itself from the Sunshine Law.

On the plus side, many legislators and their challengers appear receptive to lobbying reforms such as much greater financial and gift disclosures, something that is also on the commission’s radar.

Compliments to Rep. Angus McKelvey, too, who wrote, “We need to get out of the square building and look at having committees conduct hearings and decision-making on actual bills at different public locations around Hawaii so we can better connect people to the essential workings of the Legislature during the session.”

And I welcomed the occasionally very frank comments from some folks, like this one from state Sen. Laura Acasio — even though I personally don’t favor term limits:

The most compelling argument I can make in favor of term limits is that they act as a flushing mechanism for the factionalism and grudges that accumulate in our political system to the detriment of our entire state. Although I entered politics well aware of the many ways the process can get corrupted, nothing prepared me for the number of times I heard a bill wouldn’t pass or a funding request wouldn’t get approved simply because someone didn’t like someone else. Every time I was forced to accept this felt like a gut punch. It happens regardless of how good the bill is or how much the appropriation is needed; it happens between representatives and senators elected to serve the very same communities.

Hmm. I just might be persuaded to change my mind on term limits.


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

Let's start from the ground up. We need term limits.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 month ago

Of course! They are the biggest criminals that benefit from the corruption.

Today · 1 month ago

I was going to say it sounds like children in middle school but that would be really insulting to middle schoolers.

Fred_Garvin · 1 month ago

Join the conversation

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