Hawaii lawmakers are used to hearing the criticism that they often vote in their own interests. Most work outside jobs, and bills often come up that could benefit their sources of income.
Even comedian John Oliver noticed.
A few years ago, Oliver ran a segment on his HBO show highlighting how Rep. Joe Souki disclosed he was a consultant for the American Chemistry Council just before the House voted on a bill the trade group opposed. The legislation would have imposed a fee on plastic bags.
The House’s presiding lawmaker told the Maui Democrat there was no conflict, and Souki voted against the bill.
Oliver’s studio audience scoffed and laughed. But lawmakers argue there are good reasons to vote even in such circumstances.
Souki, who was House speaker from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2013 until last May, said leaders have long been relatively liberal in allowing votes amid potential conflicts. It’s better to have lawmakers on the record for or against legislation, he said.
“The bottom line is that we are a part-time legislature,” Souki said. “People work and they’re going to have potential conflicts because of their job.”
The Hawaii Constitution wants members to vote — “to be transparent and not to hide behind recusal,” Souki said.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said lawmakers have a duty to represent their constituents, which includes voting. Disclosure requirements act as a check, Saiki said.
Senate President Ronald Kouchi said if the definition of conflict was too broad, “you can almost conflict everybody out of voting and not be able to conduct business.”
In a nationwide review, the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers reported outside income or employment in 2015. While that might give lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, many of those income sources are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures.
The review was based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them. It found numerous examples of state lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances. The practice is enabled by limited disclosure requirements for personal financial information and self-policing that often excuses seemingly blatant conflicts.
Under Hawaii Senate rules, lawmakers shouldn’t vote if they have a conflict. If they’re unsure, they must notify the Senate president, who will determine if there is one. House rules are similar.
In multiple cases this year, Hawaii lawmakers voted on legislation potentially affecting their employers.
State Rep. Linda Ichiyama sponsored and voted for a bill that would have allowed a dispute between condominium owners and a board or management company to go to arbitration if the parties failed to agree during mediation.
That’s even though Ichiyama is an attorney for a Honolulu law firm that frequently represents condominium associations. Christian Porter, one of the firm’s partners, submitted testimony supporting the legislation.
The Democrat representing Salt Lake and Moanalua didn’t return phone messages seeking comment. But Souki said Ichiyama reported her conflicts to him and he ruled there was no conflict. The bill died after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on its content.
Sen. Michelle Kidani sponsored and voted on condo-related legislation even though she’s a community affairs manager for Associa, a company that manages condominiums on behalf of associations.
The Mililani Democrat also served on a committee that worked out House and Senate disagreements on condominium and other bills.
Kouchi said he doesn’t recall Kidani asking him to rule on possible conflicts during the past session.
Kidani, in an emailed statement, said she follows Senate rules including when she votes on bills related to her work outside the Legislature. She said bills are carefully read to determine whether there may be any conflicts of interest.
Condo owners said they feel outgunned at the Legislature in part because Kidani and Ichiyama are helping draft legislation.
“We don’t know how to write our own bills or measures. So we ask legislators to do so, but they turn around and ask the condo industry for help in drafting it,” said Lila Mower, who owns two condos in Honolulu. “So we never get the bills we want.”
Another example: Rep. Sylvia Luke, an attorney for a prominent Honolulu personal injury law firm, voted for a bill that would have required the state to defend county lifeguards against lawsuits and allowed lifeguard immunity protections to expire. Ige vetoed the bill. Luke, a Democrat representing Makiki and Nuuanu, didn’t return phone and email messages seeking comment.
Corie Tanida, executive director for Common Cause Hawaii, a watchdog group, said information on conflicts should be more accessible.
Lawmakers declare their income sources to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, which posts them online. But the public must watch hearings and floor sessions, or review lengthy records, to learn whether lawmakers disclosed potential conflicts before a vote.
“We shouldn’t have to go through journals, we shouldn’t have to go through hours of footage to see if this conflict of interest was declared,” Tanida said. “It’s all about fostering the public’s trust.”