Loophole Limits Disclosure of Lawmakers' Income

RJ Brown/Civil Beat

Editor's Note: This article is the second in an occasional series on Hawaii ethics laws. Read the first: Today's Disclosure, Yesterday's News

Hawaii's ethics code is too loose, some lawmakers say. So loose, that a politician can receive income from a firm or lobbyist doing business before the Legislature without disclosing the financial relationship.

It's a problem that new Senate President Shan Tsutsui wants to fix.

"That is definitely something we'll be looking at," Tsutsui told Civil Beat recently. "We want to make sure there's as much transparency as possible. To make sure that there isn't a potential conflict or a conflict that's not known by other members as well as the general public."

Each year, elected and appointed officials are required to file a financial disclosure with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. The disclosure lists all of a public figure's major assets and affords voters a means to ensure their representative is acting in the public's best interest.

But while the Hawaii Constitution calls for all "sources and amounts of income," to be disclosed, public officials are not required to disclose the individual clients supplying the income. For example, politicians who are also lawyers must say they received income from their law firm, but can leave out the names of their clients, some of whom have issues before the Legislature.

The same goes for Realtors, certified personal accountants, consultants, etc.

Currently, when there is a potential conflict, politicians are required to stand and ask the president or speaker for a ruling on whether or not the legislator should be allowed to vote on a particular issue. Since working in the Legislature is considered part-time work, many lawmakers hold separate jobs, which can lead to votes that might require politicians to recuse themselves to avoid a conflict.

"I've always heard the president say, 'no conflict,'" Tsutsui said. "But, you know, I'm sure at times there must be conflicts. How do I better know so that I can make the correct ruling now? I don't want to say no conflict when there could potentially be, if I don't have a firm understanding of what the situation is."

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