A blue-ribbon panel tasked with identifying ways to better Hawaii government is calling for sweeping reforms to restore public trust in government.

The suggested reforms include enhancing investigation and prosecution of fraud, providing more openness and transparency, curbing the influence of money to lawmakers and limiting their time in office.

The report was triggered by a string of corruption cases involving government officials statewide that made national headlines and raised doubts about the integrity of local government operations.

The report from the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, submitted Thursday morning to the Hawaii House of Representatives, details more than 30 proposals to reshape Hawaii’s laws and legislative process in the areas of ethics, corruption, elections and government operations.

Retired Judge Daniel Foley chaired the standards commission. Courtesy

The work of the seven-member commission, chaired by retired Hawaii Judge Dan Foley, began at the request of the House not long after the Feb. 8 news that a former state senator and a sitting state representative — since resigned — had been charged with honest services wire fraud because they accepted bribes to alter the outcomes of legislation. Both soon pleaded guilty but, as the report makes clear, the state has endured a series of “high-profile acts of criminal conduct on each island.”

They include cases involving fraud, conspiracy, drug trafficking, assault, bribery and embezzlement and involve government officials, businesses and unions.

The acts of these individuals have led many to believe “that a deep moral crisis exists throughout each corner of the state,” according to the report’s executive summary.

In order to restore public trust in government, the so-called Foley commission argues that now is the time for the commission and the public “to steer the Legislature to reform” areas of the law and redirect elected officials, public servants and private citizens toward “true north” values of honesty, public service and ethical behavior.

In a press release, Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki did not comment on the specific proposals but said the commission’s work was appreciated and would be considered by lawmakers.

“The strength and stability of the government relies on the public’s trust, and for public officials to act with prudence, integrity, and good, ethical judgment,” he said. “I want to reiterate my appreciation to the commissioners for their service. Their recommendations will be introduced in the 2023 legislative session and the public will have an opportunity to comment on them.”

Senate leadership had no comment on Thursday.

Public’s Influence Encouraged

The proposals fall under four broad areas: strengthening investigation and prosecution of fraud, giving openness and transparency a boost, incorporating elements of the Sunshine Law in the operations of the Legislature, which is exempt from the open meetings law; serving the public interest with “ethical awareness” and oversight; and reducing the power of money in politics.

Among the proposals are these:

  • establish new offenses within Hawaii’s Penal Code to allow enforcement agencies and prosecutors to “promptly and fairly investigate complaints, charge suspects, and impose sentences upon conviction;”
  • establish a new criminal offense for fraud at the state level, based on general federal fraud criminal statutes;
  • require legislative testimony to be received for public view at least 24 hours before a hearing;
  • require legislative leaders to explain why measures are not scheduled for hearings as well as explain why bills are deferred;
  • establish an Office of the Public Advocate and codify a “bill of rights” for the public that would “embody the ideals of respect, fairness, openness and dignity” in the legislative process; and
  • require greater disclosure of the relationship of legislators with lobbyists, as well as identify which bills, resolutions, budget items or programs that are supported or opposed by lobbyists.

The commission does not identify which proposals should be prioritized. In interviews, Foley and commission member Robert Harris, the executive director and general counsel of the State Ethics Commission, indicated they were optimistic that all 31 proposals would be adopted — either in the 2023 session that begins next month or in future sessions.

While the commission’s work is done, Foley and Harris said they would be involved in pushing the commission’s ideas and called on the public to pay close attention to the process. They expressed optimism that the incoming gubernatorial administration along with new faces in the Legislature would look favorably on the proposals.

Two of the proposals were recommended in an interim report from the commission in late March: capping or waiving the cost of charges for the reproduction of certain government records, and to encourage public boards to maintain electronic recordings of meetings for the public record. Both were vetoed by Gov. David Ige, who said they were burdensome.

At least one proposal from the commission would go before voters in the form of a constitutional amendment: It would prohibit a person from serving in the Legislature for more than 16 years.

Illustrating the division of opinion on the issue, the commission itself split by a 4-3 margin in adopting the term-limits proposal.

‘Pivotal Point In Time’

The commission’s work was not done in isolation. It held multiple public meetings over a nine-month period and consulted with a number of experts to seek input including Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm, Hawaii Attorney General Holly Shikada, emeritus University of Hawaii Manoa law professor Randy Roth, Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti and Senate Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads.

Opening Day Legislature 2022. Center, Speaker Scott Saiki is flanked by colleagues during a press conference held during recess at the Capitol. January 19, 2022
The Hawaii House of Representatives called for the creation of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct earlier this year after two legislative colleagues were indicted in bribery cases. Any proposals from the commission would require buy-in from the state Senate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

While the main report is 35 pages long, the entire report clocks in at 396 pages, most of it detailed appendices that include minutes from the meetings as well as the March interim report. The full report includes dozens of hyperlinks to legislation, local news reports and other relevant materials and sources.

In addition to Foley and Harris, the commission members were Barbara Marumoto, a former Republican legislator; Florence Nakakuni, a retired United States attorney for the District of Hawaii; Janet Mason of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii; Kristin E. Izumi-Nitao, executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission; and Nikos Leverenz, advisory board member of Common Cause Hawaii who replaced Sandy Ma in June when she resigned as executive director of the organization.

The executive summary concludes, “The Commission senses the significance of this pivotal point in time and recognizes a tremendous opportunity to mend the relationship between the public and its government. The Commission has heeded exhortations by the public to be bold in its recommendations and proposals and urges elected officials at the Legislature to likewise take bold action, strongly consider each request in this Final Report, and timely and decisively act to turn the tide of public sentiment toward trust in government with integrity and honorable public service.”

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