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House speaker upset about ethics rules on gifts to lawmakers

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    In this May 7 photo, House Speaker Joseph Souki, left, talks to reporters in Honolulu about the 2015 legislative session as House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, right, looks on.

The leader of Hawaii’s House of Representatives is complaining about state Ethics Commission rules that rein in gifts to lawmakers.

House Speaker Joseph Souki sent a letter to the commission questioning what he calls "controversial directives or recommendations."

The letter, dated April 27, will be discussed at the Ethics Commission’s meeting Wednesday.

Souki’s letter criticizes a list of rules, including one that bars lawmakers from accepting gift baskets or meals that have "relatively substantial" value. He says those rules are vague and should be decided through legislation, and that such gifts have never raised ethical objections in the past.

"I think that’s kind of arbitrary," Souki said in an interview. "To say something like ‘relatively substantial,’ what is the definition of ‘relatively substantial’?"

Les Kondo, the commission’s executive director, said he expects the commission will consider an appropriate response to the letter at its meeting.

Souki also complained in the letter that lawmakers were advised by the commission not to accept tickets to events that serve food and drinks if those tickets are worth more than $25. That doesn’t jibe with the law as he understands it, which does not require disclosure of gifts from a single source that total $200 or less in a year, he said.

"There is a current law that allows us not to report any gifts under $200," Souki said. "Anything over $200 dollars we have to report."

Souki said his four-page letter to the commission was in response to a Dec. 23 memo to lawmakers about what Souki called the "gift basket situation." The memo advised lawmakers to decline a gift basket from the Office of Aerospace Development.

The Ethics Commission plans to discuss Kondo’s performance evaluation at its meeting Wednesday after discussing Souki’s letter. But the speaker said his letter was not related to Kondo’s evaluation.

"This letter that I sent has nothing to do with the current evaluation of Mr. Kondo," Souki said. "It has only to do with the Dec. 23 letter and some of the past decisions that they have made."

Souki’s letter also says teachers are outraged about the commission’s recommendation that they shouldn’t get a free ride from tour operators when they chaperone students on trips.

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