Ethics Debate Likely to Center on Gifts Law in 2012 Legislature

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Hawaii lawmakers blatantly challenged the state's Ethics Code last session with attempts to water down regulation over gifts and perks that legislators can accept.

The saga unfolded with sharp exchanges between lawmakers and State Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo. While lawmakers eventually gave up on the so-called gifts bill, it's been carried over to this year's session.

In short, last year was not a good year for new ethics legislation. Of the 20 ethics-related bills introduced, only one passed, and it was a straightforward budgetary measure.

Lawmakers could take a direct shot at the commission and Kondo, who already has drawn the ire of some legislators for his hard line on accepting meals and gifts. Kondo said at a recent commission meeting that he'd heard about the possibility of the commission being consolidated within another department to save money — perhaps a move to weaken the commission's oversight.

Here's a look at some of the major ethics measures floating around the Legislature.

Gifts: The gifts bill, Senate Bill 671, could make a comeback.

The initial intention was to tighten ethics laws, force politicians and state employees to be more transparent, and offer the public greater access to financial disclosures. The original version, which never got a hearing, would have to be reintroduced. The amended version has been carried over.

There's talk that lawmakers, annoyed with the Ethics Commission's agressive regulation, could propose legislation allowing lawmakers to accept free tickets to pau hana-type events, but that any "invite ticket" exceeding $50 be reported on lawmaker's annual gift disclosures.

Under current law, only gifts that exceed $200 in value from a single source must be reported. Lawmakers are permitted to accept a meal valued up to $25 without it having to be reported. No gift, regardless of value, can be accepted under the law if it's obvious the gift is intended to reward or influence the recipient.

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