Hawaii may have good laws when it comes to government transparency and accountability.

But there’s a huge gap between what’s written on paper and the daily reality here. That’s according to a new 50-state, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption efforts.

Hawaii ranked 44th. Only Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, New York and Maryland were worse. The best was Nebraska.

The “enforcement gap” represents the difference in a state’s “in law” score and “in practice” score, according to the State Integrity Investigation. This is the difference between what the law says and what is done on the ground. A higher gap score means a state is not doing as well implementing existing transparency and accountability measures. Hawaii’s was among the worst scores.

The state’s score was only revealed in the final days of a project that Civil Beat joined last August. Reporter Diane Lee, Assistant Editor Sara Lin and I worked for months as the Hawaii team for the national effort. The State Integrity Investigation hired journalists in every state to measure the strength of laws and practices that encourage openness and deter corruption.

The effort was funded in part by the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm founded by Pierre Omidyar, publisher and CEO of Civil Beat, and his wife, Pam. The methodology was designed by Global Integrity, a nonprofit with experience in this work in more than 11 countries; the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization, oversaw the reporting; and Public Radio International is managing the website.

Civil Beat joined the project last year because it fit with our goals of placing Hawaii in a national context and of encouraging transparent and open government. It provided us an organized way to understand state law and practices. The research was rigorous, using 330 integrity indicators.

Hawaii received a relatively high overall rank on the Corruption Risk Report Card, based on our research. It placed 10th, with a score of 71 and a Grade of C.

Frankly, that surprised us. Regular readers of Civil Beat know of the many obstacles we’ve encountered in our pursuit of public records and the many challenges we’ve faced in trying to get public officials to explain their decisions. We’ve been blocked from reviewing court records and seen huge price tags put up when we’ve asked to review documents. Many government officials appear to have taken a code of silence after taking office, except when it comes to cutting ribbons or sharing happy talk.

The enforcement gap seemed a much more accurate measure of the state of things in Hawaii than the Corruption Risk Report Card.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the law is. We know that many countries have great laws. But in many of those same places the words of the laws have no practical meaning. What matters is practice. Whether government actually applies or enforces its laws.

The good news in Hawaii’s case, based on the study, is that relatively decent laws have already been passed. But the reality is there’s a lot of room for improvement if government in Hawaii is going to live up to its laws. Laws are meaningless unless they’re being followed.

One example of the enforcement gap is related to access to public information. A law is in place granting access, but in practice, there’s no recourse if an agency refuses to disclose a record except to sue in court.

For example, Gov. Neil Abercrombie refused to release names of nominees for the Hawaii Supreme Court, citing possible problems in attracting potential judicial candidates and frustrating government function. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser sued the governor for refusing to release the names, which are public record under the state law.

Another example of the enforcement gap is the restriction on post-government employment by civil servants/state lawmakers and cabinet level employees. There is a 12-month restriction, but it isn’t well known, and there’s no way to know if it’s being followed because even lawmakers who would presumably be in the know say it can’t be tracked.

The restriction is enforced if there are complaints, but it would be hard for people to complain if they don’t know what the rules are, said Ian Lind, a veteran political blogger and former head of Common Cause.

Hawaii’s conflict of interest laws in theory are good. But they are not followed in practice, based on Civil Beat’s No Conflict series.

State law requires that all state employees follow fair treatment and conflict-of -interest rules. State Rep. Karl Rhoads, chair of the House Labor and Public Employment Committee, said lawmakers generally cast votes on everything, and judge for themselves whether a conflict is involved. When they ask for a ruling by the speaker or Senate president, they’re invariably told “no conflict.”

A fourth example is the state’s law requiring disclosure of financial interests by lobbyists and state employees.

Even in sectors where corruption and graft have historically been found — such as lobbying and state procurement — the state has no additional layers of oversight to identify potential problems.

The ethics commission receives more than 1,800 financial disclosures each year. Of those, approximately 160 are public. The rest are confidential. The commission may scan the forms to make sure they are filled out correctly, but it doesn’t have the staff to check each one for discrepancies.

Respondents are often confused about what information they’re required to report about their financial holdings. Among recent problems: The governor’s nominee to direct the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, William Aila, turned in his financial disclosure form more than a month late. Some state lawmakers made their own estimates of the value of real estate they owned that were not consistent with public records. Other lawmakers left out details in their reports.

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To learn more, visit StateIntegrity.org

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