Legislative Shot at Easing Hawaii Gifts Law Flops

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After all the hoopla, the governor's plan to allow lawmakers unrestricted invites to charitable fundraisers quietly failed without a fuss Thursday.

The issue seemed like a high priority considering it came down from Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The bill was at the heart of a political fight between legislators and the state Ethics Commission over how Executive Director Les Kondo interprets the Ethics Code.

But House Judiciary Chairman Gilbert Keith-Agaran said the administration's supporting testimony was just "lukewarm." He said he gave the bill a hearing because he generally tries to hear bills from the Fifth Floor.

Keith-Agaran shelved House Bill 2457 Thursday afternoon, and said it's as good as dead in the House. A companion Senate version has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

The bill would have lifted restrictions on invitations or free tickets under the Ethics Code offered by nonprofits, regardless of value. Lawmakers can pay out of pocket to attend such events.

Under current rules, gifts of any value are prohibited if it's obvious the gift is intended to influence or reward the lawmaker.

The Ethics Commission had opposed the bill, noting that charities lobby the Legislature or bid for competitive state contracts or grants.

Kondo declined comment on the bill's deferral.

Last session, lawmakers made a similar push to ease gift limits following Kondo's guidance that they couldn't accept gifts of $200-per-person tickets to a Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs fundraiser. William Kaneko, HIPA's president and CEO, was Abercrombie's campaign manager and is one of his close advisors.

Keith-Agaran said public perception is key when it comes to accepting gifts.

"I think people always think people in position have freebies," he said following the hearing. "Obviously some people take advantage more than others. The final test is what do your constituents think?"

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