Compliance with taking a mandatory ethics course has increased significantly, but some organizations still lag.

Since a new law requiring state legislators and employees to complete live or online ethics training classes every four years went into effect Jan. 1, the number of people taking the course has increased signifcantly as compared to 2021.

That’s due in part because an online, self-directed version of the course was introduced in 2020, when the pandemic forced many people to work from home.

As of Oct. 4, the number of legislators and employees taking the course has totaled nearly 30,000, or half of the 60,000 state workers that the Hawaii State Ethics Commission has under its jurisdiction.

But there are still hundreds of workers covered by Act 165 that have not taken the training, either online or live via webinar or in-person classes. Commission staff plans to step up its outreach and education process between now and the end of the year to get more employees to comply with the law.

Robert Harris, the commission’s executive director, said at a commission meeting earlier this month that the focus will be on the higher level employees such as the governor, the lieutenant governor, state legislators, executive department heads and deputies who are required to make their financial disclosures public. Many of them have already completed the training.

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission reviewed how ethics training for public officials is going at a meeting in October. (Screenshot/2023)

But there are some 300 of these employees statewide and they also include the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, the Land Use Commission, the Public Utilities Commission, the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the Board of Education and trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs — 17 boards and commissions in total.

Of those 300, about 60 people have not enrolled in the training. And all of these workers are required to take the in-person or webinar version of the training, which allows for active question and answers, but not the online version. Commission staff typically visit agencies to administer the training.

Ethics commissioners welcomed the data presentation on compliance with the new law but expressed concern that some employees had yet to sign up.

Chair Wesley Fong said the commission’s emphasis is to be proactive when it comes to training and enforcement.

“Everybody should know the law in regards to ethics, because if you don’t, then it’s their problem, not ours,” he said. “My concern is who is lagging.”

An excerpt from a Hawai State Ethics Commission report on ethics training compliance. (Screenshot/2023)

And a new ethics commissioner, former state legislator Cynthia Thielen, wants the commission to “zero in” on the agencies that data show have less than 25% compliance.

She pointed specifically to the Hawaii Tourism Authority — “an incredibly important board,” Thielen said — where commission staff reported only one of the 12 board members had been trained on ethics.

After this article was published, a spokesperson for the HTA said that the number of board members who had completed the required training is now up to nine. The remaining three will complete the requirement by Dec. 31.

Harris and Bonita Chang, the compliance director for the commission, cautioned that it was difficult for the commission to pinpoint the identities of specific employees, as each organization has human resource data that the ethics commission is not privy to. The data can also be skewed when an employee takes the training more than once, which has happened.

There are also agencies that have high turnover such as the state departments of transportation and public safety, two of the six departments that have a compliance rate of under 50%.

Another of those agencies, the Department of Law Enforcement, is new. While initial numbers showed that the DLE had a training compliance rate of just 30%, Harris said Friday that the agency had “misreported” its training statistics. Updated information shows that all 16 of DLE’s employees have completed training, or 100%.

An excerpt from a Hawai State Ethics Commission report showing ethics training compliance under 50% for the Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Public Safety, the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Accounting and General Services. (Screenshot/2023)

After the presentation, Thielen and Fong crafted language for a letter that commission staff will send to the 11 organizations that posted a compliance rate of less than 20%, including the HTA.

Thielen expected that the letters would have a mobilizing impact, explaining that when a state legislator received a letter from the ethics commission “it shook not only that person but other legislators.”

Defining Gifts

The legislation that became Act 165 was proposed in the 2022 session by the ethics commission. Not long after lawmakers convened in January, a former Senate majority leader and a sitting House Finance Committee vice chair admitted that they took part in a bribery scheme to benefit a wastewater company.

The House subsequently formed the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct. In its interim report that March, the commission — which included Harris — backed the legislation that became Act 165.

The ethics training addresses gifts and reporting, fair treatment, confidential information, conflicts of interest, state contracts and post-employment restrictions.

A detail from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission online training course. (Screenshot/2023)

For example, the online training raises the issue of whether or not a state legislator or employee can accept as a gift a tray of sushi, a box of manapua, a basket of wine and chocolates, a round of golf or an airline ticket.

The answer is “no” if the gift is intended to influence the legislator or employee in the performance of their official duties, or is given as a reward for any official action their part.

Sushi and manapua probably won’t be seen by the ethics commission as a violation of Hawaii Revised Statutes 84-11. But it’s advised to report all gifts in financial disclosure statements.

Harris said that if a legislator or employee does not take the training, the commission retains the ability to reinforce the state ethics code by leveling fines.

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