The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct is recommending that lawmakers stop accepting campaign cash while doing their work during the legislative session.

A bill to do that along with nine other measures focused on reforming campaign finance laws will head to lawmakers for consideration during the 2023 session, set to start in January. The commission previously recommended banning any donations during the legislative session, but state lawmakers only banned fundraising events instead.

Curtailing fundraising events had little effect on campaign donations. Legislators still raised more than $500,000 during the 2022 session.

A state standards commission wants lawmakers to stop taking campaign cash during the legislative session. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

The proposed ban on in-session donations would apply to all elected officials. So all state lawmakers, county council members, mayors, trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the lieutenant governor and the governor would all be banned from accepting donations while the Legislature is in session, which typically runs between mid-January to early May.

Earlier this year, House Speaker Scott Saiki, who created the commission, signaled support for a measure with those parameters.

The ban would also extend to any special session of the Legislature and would also apply during weekends and holidays. The bill would not apply to candidates who are not officeholders after concerns were raised to the commission earlier this year that banning all candidates from fundraising during legislative session could stifle new candidates.

“There’s a good argument that someone running for office for the first time is not subject to the same corruption concerns,” commission member and state Ethics Director Robert Harris said.

There’s been a renewed focus on campaign and ethics reform after federal indictments this year nabbed public officials and wealthy private donors in criminal probes. Prosecutors allege that campaign contributions to former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro from developer Dennis Mitsunaga and his associates amounted to bribes.

In February, prosecutors charged former lawmakers J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen with accepting bribes from Honolulu businessman Milton Choy.

Choy pleaded guilty in September for giving just under $2 million in bribes to former Maui County official Stewart Stant. In exchange, Stant directed nearly $20 million worth of no-bid contracts to Choy’s company.

Choy’s associates and family members also donated more than $356,000 to local politicians in the last eight years while his companies won contracts on Oahu and neighbor islands.

The commission also took up another campaign finance measure aimed at banning government contractors from making campaign contributions while they are actively working on a contract. Hawaii’s current law only applies that ban to the contracted company, not to its employees.

The commission’s proposal would extend the ban to owners and officers of companies as well as their immediate family members.

The commission considered extending the ban to all employees of a contracted company but voted to remove that language over concerns that it could draw constitutional challenges.

Harris and commissioner Nikos Leverenz described the new pay-to-play ban as a “bold proposal.”

The commission is scheduled to take up another slate of proposals on Oct. 26 that seeks to tighten ethics rules for lawmakers and lobbyists. Those measures were reviewed and won preliminary approval from the state Ethics Commission Wednesday morning.

The standards commission has until December to wrap up its work and send a full list of recommendations to the Legislature.

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