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Critics say Hawaii political money hard to trace

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

LAST UPDATED: 01:17 a.m. HST, Jan 31, 2014

HONOLULU >> It's been months since same-sex marriage became legal in Hawaii, but taxpayers still don't know how much money supporters or opponents spent to influence the decision.

Lobbyists are supposed disclose how much money they're spending to influence lawmakers, but critics say the state disclosure system is among the weakest in the nation and prevents a timely and complete tally.

It could be that nothing improper took place, but "if you don't have the information then how do you even know to have a concern?" asked Democratic state Sen. Les Ihara, who has introduced legislation he hopes will strengthen the system.

Ihara's measures aim to close gaps that allowed more than 90 percent of nearly 200 registered individual lobbyists to report zero expenses over three reporting periods last year, according to reviews by The Associated Press.

According to the current law, lobbyists are required to list expenditures worth more than $25 toward one person in one day or $150 to one person over a reporting period, which is similar to disclosure rules that apply at the federal level.

But Ihara, the majority policy leader, said lobbyists in Hawaii operate under a longtime interpretation of the law by the state ethics commission that if the money they spend comes from an organization such as a business or advocacy group, they don't have to report it in the disclosure system. The ethics panel's position, Ihara said, holds that requiring that level of reporting would be duplicative. But "the ethics commission has misinterpreted the law," he said.

Les Kondo, the commission's executive director, declined to comment on the practice.

Lobbyist Scott Matsuura, a lobbyist who has reported zero expenditures said that he and his colleagues have been abiding by the rules the state has outlined. "For most of us, we're following what we've been told to do," he said.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, gave Hawaii a D-minus for its lobbying disclosure practices on a 2012 report. The state's system has not changed since that review.

The public should "know what gifts or entertainment that lobbyist provided to individual legislators," said Gordon Witkin, the center's managing editor.

Lobbyists must report expenditures each January, March and May. Critics say this reporting schedule creates another problem, one that doesn't give taxpayers and government watchdogs timely information about the influence exerted on lawmakers.

"When it's months later, people are going to forget," Ihara said.

For instance, gay marriage, an issue that generated heated testimony from thousands of people and raucous rallies on both sides, passed with heavy support during a special session that ended Nov. 12, but based on reporting requirements, disclosures won't be made until Friday. Even then, however, critics say, under the ethics panel's position, taxpayers will likely learn little.

Ihara said government watchdog groups have suggested requiring more complete monthly reports during the regular session. In the rare event of a special session, Ihara suggests that reports be filed 10 days after the session adjourns.

Kondo, the ethics panel director, said changing when reports are due "would certainly add to the already full plate of the commission staff."

It's not clear whether Ihara's overhauls will pass -- they were introduced this month and haven't received a hearing -- but legislators ignored similar bills last year.

Neither Rep. Karl Rhoads nor Sen. Clayton Hee, both Democrats and chairmen of their chambers' respective Judiciary committees, held hearings for a proposal to require more information from lobbyists.

At the time, Rhoads said lawmakers had more controversial matters to address. Hee said then that the proposal needed more research.

Rhoads, whose wife is a lobbyist, said Friday that he's open to hearing a bill addressing disclosure rules, but added "I'm skeptical about whether it's hard to put the pieces together. I think you can learn an awful lot by looking at the lobbyist filings."

The problem is the system, not the lobbyists, said Janet Mason, legislative chair of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii.

"We recognize the lobbyists are very influential, but we don't think we're dealing with a cast of nefarious characters," she said. However, she added, "the public has a right to understand who is influencing and shaping public policy."

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atilter wrote:
that's the reason why we have the political environment that exists today! it's all a shell game - okay place your bets! under which of these three shells will the pea be???
on January 31,2014 | 12:43AM
inlanikai wrote:
Gee, isn't "hard to trace" exactly the way the politicians want it? Put something in the law so they can say they want accountability but make it murky and sprinkle it with some confusing and contradictory guidelines so the donors have a plausible excuse when they violate the law. A perfect scenario!
on January 31,2014 | 03:17AM
serious wrote:
I still say the legislators should wear long sleeved shirts like the NASCAR drivers to show who they really represent!!
on January 31,2014 | 04:38AM
soundofreason wrote:
Can you just imagine the sea of blue shirts (team viagra) that would be out there lobbying for liberal sex education issues? ;)
on January 31,2014 | 06:05AM
whs1966 wrote:
Well, we have nothing to worry about since one of our elected "leaders" (I think it was Calvin Say.) declared a few years ago that there is no such thing as a conflict of interest regarding lobbyist relationships with our lawmakers. Simply put, the $$ is hard to trace because that't the way the lawmakers want it. The last few paragraphs are telling: No hearings because the issue is "not controversial enough" and too many lawmakers, like Rhoads, are in bed with the lobbyists.
on January 31,2014 | 04:39AM
Maipono wrote:
"The problem is the system, not the lobbyists, said Janet Mason, legislative chair of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii." So true! We have a dysfunctional government in Hawaii, rife with corruption that is fed by voter apathy. When we have only one party representation, there is very little transparency, that's how incompetent "leaders" get elected like the sorry individuals in office today. Hawaii, we have to change Ainokea to Aikea, and don't let one party, the Democrats, run roughshod over the people.
on January 31,2014 | 04:40AM
inverse wrote:
The really big problem is the Hawaii Repub party is controlled by religious fanatics that instead of making gov't fiscal responsibility and acciuntability their priority instead are focused on making same sex marriage, abortions and required immunizations illegal in Hawaii. As a result the Hawaii Repub party fields losers like Aiona that will lose to just about any Demo candidate. And what does another local Repub state legislature try to do but file a lawsuit to invalidate same sex marriages in Hawaii. Maybe Hawaii should create an Independent party but to take a foothold in Hawaii those candidates need to be BOTH independently wealthy without hidden agendas and not be a part of the religious fanatical group. There were many problems with lingles downfall but it all started when probably took money from national and local organizations that wanted to ban civil unions in Hawaii. She could have been like Chris Christie and understood in todays society in the US that same sex marriage was appropriate or even Gov Burns who was a devout Catholic but allowed abortions to be legal in Hawaii, but Lingle followed by Aiona basically ended any hopes for Repub representation in Hawaii State govt.
on January 31,2014 | 05:16AM
soundofreason wrote:
"It's not clear whether Ihara's overhauls will pass -- they were introduced this month and haven't received a hearing -- but legislators ignored similar bills last year. Neither Rep. Karl Rhoads nor Sen. Clayton Hee, both Democrats and chairmen of their chambers' respective Judiciary committees, held hearings for a proposal to require more information from lobbyists.">>>...... Fox in charge of the hen house here....maybe?
on January 31,2014 | 06:02AM
soundofreason wrote:
Apparently this is all a mute point. It would appear the ethics commission disbanded last year according to their meeting agenda..............http://www1.honolulu.gov/ethics/meetings/index1.htm
on January 31,2014 | 06:34AM
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