If there was ever any doubt about whether a charter school employee works for the state, that issue was put to rest this week.
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission ruled Tuesday that Connections Public Charter School administrative assistant Eric Boyd is in fact a state employee — and therefore subject to the state ethics code. It will rule separately, as soon as next month, whether he violated the state ethics code on multiple counts.
“The commission’s ruling removed any doubt that anyone had that people who work at charter schools are state employees subject to the state ethics code,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo told Civil Beat Wednesday evening. “Hopefully for the future it’s well settled now that an interpretation has been made by the commission.”
Boyd’s attorney, Ted Hong, had argued that his client was not a state employee and therefore not subject to Hawaii’s ethics code.
If the commission had found in his favor, it could have opened the door for charter schools throughout the state to make their own rules on ethics. And as Kondo has said, it would have put in question other Hawaii laws that govern state employees.
Hong has said the case highlights and threatens the independence of charter schools. He said charter school employees must have a certain degree of autonomy if the system is going to succeed.
The contested case hearing this week was the commission’s first in 27 years. The two-day, quasi-judicial hearing wrapped up Wednesday in Hilo.
The commission ordered both parties — Boyd through his attorney Hong, and Kondo, who functions as prosecutor in the case — to submit their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law by Dec. 17.
The commission will consider these reports — which Hong described as each parties’ version of what the outcome should be, based on the evidence — when it meets again Dec. 19. It’s unclear when the commission will rule on the alleged ethics violations.
The commission has charged Boyd with 26 violations dating back to 2006. The strongest conflict-of-interest counts involve Boyd — who also owns and runs a food service business with his wife — signing off on payments to himself for providing hundreds of school meals and selling thousands of dollars worth of electronics equipment to the school.
Shooting down arguments that Boyd helped secure good prices and wasn’t trying to make money hand over fist, Kondo said the commission never alleged he committed fraud or was trying to take advantage of the school. He said Boyd violated the state ethics code when he, as a school employee, transacted business with his own private company.
“The statute sets the floor … that standard of conduct necessary so the public has confidence in state government,” he said.
The Legislature passed a bill last summer, which Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law in June, that clearly says all charter school employees are subject to Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 84, the state ethics code.
This seems to conflict in part with another law governing charter schools. HRS Chapter 302B says charter schools and their local school boards shall develop internal policies and procedures consistent with ethical standards of conduct, pursuant to Chapter 84.
How the commission reconciles the difference — and applicability, given that one of the laws didn’t exist until this summer but the charges go back six years — remains to be seen.
Hong said testimony at the hearing revealed Boyd has at no time since he began working at Connections received from the state a notice of the Code of Ethics or any training in the Code of Ethics. He added that it would be fundamentally unfair to hold a person responsible for conduct that they believed they were exempt from.