Chad Blair: Are House And Senate Leaders Taking Ethics Reform Seriously? - 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 or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Speaker Scott Saiki and President Ron Kouchi explain where they stand on restoring public trust at the Capitol.

In early March 2020 I hosted a Civil Cafe at the Hawai State Capitol. Nearing the one-hour mark and with just 15 minutes remaining, I asked a series of lightning-round questions from readers that began with this one: “Is the Legislature as a whole acting from a place of integrity?”

The answer, from Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, came immediately: “Yes. Next question.”

The conference room at the Capitol erupted in laughter, with me joining in.

“Absolutely,” House Speaker Scott Saiki quickly chimed in.

It was the midpoint of the 2020 session, and the mood in the room was pretty light. We laughed not because the question on integrity wasn’t important, I recall, but rather because it came directly from my mom. Hawaii is indeed a small place.

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English at a Civil Cafe at the Capitol in March 2020. (Screenshot/2023)

Within a matter of days the Capitol would be evacuated due to a state senator coming into work after contracting Covid-19 on a trip to Las Vegas.

In late April 2021 English himself suddenly retired from the Senate, citing lingering effects after he became ill with Covid the previous November.

And in February 2022 — not even a year ago — English and then House Finance Vice Chair Ty Cullen admitted they accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to promote or kill legislation favorable to a contractor.

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The House quickly moved to form a Commission on Standards of Conduct intended to make sure what happened with English and Cullen doesn’t happen again.

Last week, at another Civil Cafe at the Capitol in the very same conference room, a question from a reader was posed to Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi: “When is the systematic corruption in Hawaii government going to be addressed?”

This time the audience started laughing before the answers were provided.

Saiki asked Kouchi if he wanted to answer first. Kouchi responded by saying, “That’s your commission.”

Saiki then proceeded to explain the origins of the commission. He explained that House Judiciary Chair David Tarnas would likely take the lead on the measures, which are 28 bills and three resolutions.

But Saiki also noted that “there was some opposition from members of the public” to what the commission considered and that “there were some recommendations” the commission voted not to include in its final report. As Saiki pointed out, commission members were not unanimous on all matters discussed. 

“So we’ll see how the hearings go this year,” said Saiki, indicating that public input would be a factor.

Public input is essential to the legislative process, of course. And it’s correct that commission members had their differences.

The Civil Beat Cafe at the Capitol on Tuesday featured House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi, at center. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But it seemed as if the speaker was trying to tamp down expectations — even though it was Saiki’s idea to form the commission, that it was voted on unanimously by his House colleagues and that the commission members were a retired judge, a former Republican representative, a former U.S. attorney, members of Common Cause Hawaii and the League of Women Voters, and the current executive directors of the Campaign Spending Commission and State Ethics Commission.

Another red flag was raised when Kouchi explained that some sort of “snafu” had led to the Senate missing a 5 p.m. deadline on Jan. 20 to co-sponsor the standards of conduct bills. Since then, Kouchi said, he was able to sign off on the bills.

But as of Saturday, only a handful of companion bills from the Senate were indicated on the Capitol website and none of the House measures (House Bills 705-712, House Bills 715-733 and HB 796) had been referred to their first committee.

The president said that the Senate has moved to amend its rules to address some of the issues raised by the Foley commission, named for retired Judge Dan Foley. They include continuing to stream online committee hearings and to post legislative allowances on the Legislature’s website.

“And the best way to shine a light on it is to get more people involved in seeing how the process works,” said Kouchi, who said the streaming was one benefit that arose out of the pandemic. “Clearly this hybrid system and the ability to stream all hearings of the Legislature is a great outcome.”

Ever the cynical journalist, I then asked this question: “What do you say to people out there worried about wanting to trust what you guys are doing here?”

Kouchi responded, “The only way is to prove what you’re about.”

‘Total Wakeup Call’

Kouchi said that in his years as Senate president he had “never” been able to do everything in a session that was proposed on Opening Day — until last year, that is. That’s when, Kouchi explained, he was able to work successfully with Saiki, Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and then House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke.

The result: A session that was described as historic and focused on Native Hawaiian causes, increasing the minimum wage, pushing housing projects and passing initiatives to put tax money back in the hands of taxpayers.

“And so I hope that we’re going to be better than last year,” Kouchi continued. “And that’s the only way I can think of trying to assure the public that we’re here and we’re working on outcomes that are in the best interests of the people in Hawaii. And I think if we live up to what the speaker and I talked about at the beginning, if we do the things that the governor talked about (in his State of the State address), then we will have lived up to that commitment and then it’s up to the people to decide.”

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol Rep Ty Cullen questions DLNR. 31 jan 2017
Rep. Ty Cullen in 2017. Were he and J.Kalani English the exception to the rule when it comes to ethical behavior at the Legislature? (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

Here’s how Saiki answered the question: “I think what happened last year was a total wakeup call.”

The speaker recalled how the House was in floor session when the news about English and Cullen broke.

“We started getting the breaking news on our phones and everybody that was listening was in shock,” he said.

After the floor session Saiki returned to his fourth floor office at the Capitol to find a letter from Cullen announcing that he had resigned.

“And at that point, I didn’t even know that he was involved with this,” he said.

Still, Saiki suggested that, while he was not trying to excuse what happened, what happened with Cullen and English was rare.

“There are so many members of the Legislature who work so hard and who are ethical and who follow the law and who are tainted by what happened,” he said. “But having said that, I think everybody has learned from that incident. I believe that members are extra careful now about their conduct and what we learn from this. And that’s one reason why we wanted to form this commission, to bring independent people who could make recommendations for us.”

Saiki concluded: “We learn from this and we know that this system doesn’t work if there’s no public confidence in us.”

My take: Saiki and Kouchi take government reform seriously, but the work of the Foley commission is just part of the process.

In addition to the 31 measures, there are by my count more than 150 other reform measures also proposed this year, many of them already referred to the Judiciary committees run by Tarnas in the House or Rep. Karl Rhoads in the Senate. Many only have one or two committee referrals, suggesting that they may advance.

There’s a lot of overlap and duplication, though, and parts of some bills will be inserted into others. And some bills will die mysterious deaths during conference committee at the end of April. Let’s hope Kouchi, Saiki and other lawmakers will publicly help us understand why, and that dead but worthy bills get picked up again in 2024.

But, at least as of this writing, I expect at least some reform-minded legislation will end up heading to the desk of Gov. Josh Green, who says he’s all for reform.

Read this next:

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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 or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

For anyone interested in testifying on some of these bills, HBs 716 (voter guide), 719 (charges for public records), 720 (partial public financing of elections), 725 (public advocate), and 796 (term limits) are set for a 2 pm hearing before the JHA on 2/8.

CBsupporter · 7 months ago

As serious as they can be without jeopardizing they're re-election. I think the laundry list of bills are just a facade... Meanwhile how-a-bout that economy?

surferx808 · 8 months ago

*Senator* Karl Rhoads :)

WindwardGoodfellow · 8 months ago

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