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Thursday, October 30, 2014         

ON POLITICS


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State Ethics Commission looking for that bright line

By Richard Borreca

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It is sort of like surgeons performing major operations on family members or lawyers representing themselves in court. You can do it, but there are going to be a lot of questions.

That is what it is like when the state Legislature tries to write laws about itself.

The index of state laws has more than 10 pages of references to the state election laws, which are always of concern to incumbent lawmakers. Interestingly, the index of laws about gifts to the Legislature runs a half inch.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee delayed a decision on whether legislators could accept free tickets to dinners from special interest groups. The committee is expected to make a decision on Thursday, so the inside lobbying continues.

First there were questions about how to define the groups. At first everybody could invite legislators, then just not lobbyists, but it was proper to accept invites from nonprofit groups. Then it was whittled down to just charities.

It started as a question of whether lawmakers could accept a free $200 dinner from the Hawaii Institute of Public Affairs. Star-Advertiser reporter Susan Essoyan reported that in past years, as many as 40 lawmakers attended the dinner, but only four came this year.

The organization, HIPA, is not in the public eye, but it drips with clout and supporters of Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Bill Kaneko, HIPA president, is the longtime chairman of Abercrombie's election committees and also headed up the group that picked Abercrombie's Cabinet.

This is the sort of ethical question that allows legislators great entanglement. There are questions about traditional island gifts of aloha, boxes of cookies and flowers, and then there are questions about gifts of trips to the Bahamas to learn about a company's new product.

To its credit, the state Ethics Commission met on the issue, was briefed by its new executive director, Leslie Kondo, and then opposed the bill. Kondo is proving to be a thoughtful and independent state executive. He has a good history of public involvement.

"He understands the unique challenges and satisfaction of helping to foster public confidence in government," said Maria Sullivan, Ethics Commission chairwoman, when Kondo was named last December.

Before that Kondo served as one of three members of the Public Utilities Commission; before that, the University of Hawaii law school-trained attorney was the director of the state Office of Information Practices and enforced the state's sunshine laws.

"He's direct, he's collaborative, he consults and he keeps us informed," said Sullivan, a Molokai attorney.

Sen. Les Ihara (D, Kaimuki-Palolo) notes that Hawaii created its Ethics Commission in 1967 and it is considered to be the first state ethics commission in the country. Ihara also praises Kondo, noting that he met with House and Senate caucuses to brief them on the ethics laws. And Kondo also held ethics training sessions for the lawmakers' office staffs.

"That is significant because you know legislators are going to do what they do, but if their staffs know what's the law, it will be different," Ihara said.

"I would say he (Kondo) is honest to a fault and that is exactly what he should be," Ihara said.

Sullivan says the commission is trying to take the somewhat murky areas of ethics law and define "a bright line" of what is acceptable and what is not allowed.

A ray of ethical sunshine is always welcome.

———

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at rborreca@staradvertiser.com.






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