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Bill allows lawmakers to take free tickets to charity events


A bill that would allow lawmakers and other state employees to accept free tickets to fundraising events for charities is moving forward at the Legislature.

Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe) offered an amendment to Senate Bill 671 to limit the practice to bona fide organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable donations. The previous version included other nonprofit entities, such as labor unions and business associations.

"Senate Draft 2 narrows the scope of the nonprofits," Hee told his colleagues before they adopted the change. "That is what we believe the executive director of the Ethics Commission meant."

The bill will be up for third reading by the Senate tomorrow. It will also be considered by the state Ethics Commission at its meeting next Wednesday. Hee has said he would like to hear the commission’s take on the legislation.

State law prohibits legislators and state employees from soliciting or accepting gifts if it is reasonable to infer that the gift is intended to influence or reward them for performing their official duties. The Ethics Commission has interpreted the law to allow small "gifts of aloha," such as lei, and meals valued under $25.

The proposed legislation would also make an exception for lawmakers and state employees to attend charity fundraisers with no dollar limit on the price of the tickets.

The push to amend the state’s long-standing gifts law comes after the commission advised legislators they would be violating the law if they accepted $200 tickets as gifts from lobbyists to attend a recent fundraising dinner for the Hawaii Institute of Public Affairs. That guidance raised the hackles of some legislators, who routinely accept such complimentary tickets.

Leslie Kondo, the commission’s executive director, said the guidance was in line with previous commission rulings. "It’s not a new thing," he said. "It’s consistent with what the office has said in the past."

But to respond to legislators’ objections, Kondo suggested off the cuff that perhaps an exception could be made for attending charitable events.

"It was just a suggestion to address the concerns of legislators," Kondo said yesterday. "I wasn’t suggesting that it was the right thing to do, because it is up to the Legislature to dictate the policy, make the law. The Ethics Commission’s job is to interpret the statue and enforce it."

Senate Bill 671 has morphed dramatically since it was first introduced in an effort to strengthen disclosure requirements for lobbyists. The original version was gutted and replaced with language allowing legislators and state employees to accept gifts of up to $200, under any circumstances. After an outcry, that too was scrapped, in favor of creating an exception for charities.

"It’s a big improvement over the previous version," said Nikki Love, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. "We are still concerned about creating exemptions to the gift law."

Norm Baker, vice president of Aloha United Way, said that inviting legislators to charitable events has been an accepted, common practice as a way to educate officials about the charities’ missions and accomplishments. His organization would like to have the law clarified.

"When a guideline or a rule like this changes overnight because of a different interpretation, it’s clear that the guidance in the statutes is not very clear," Baker said. "That’s all we want in the nonprofit world; tell us what the rules are, and we’ll be glad to follow them."


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