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  • Why Is House Speaker Joe Souki Going After Ethics Director Les Kondo?

    · By Nathan Eagle

    House Speaker Joe Souki is calling on the Hawaii State Ethics Commission to reject many of the new policies it has put in place since Les Kondo became its executive director in 2011.

    “I believe the Commission should examine its own past opinions from the 1970s through 2010 and disavow any directives subsequent to that time that alter past accepted practices,” Souki wrote in a four-page letter to the commission’s chair, Ed Broglio.

    The five-member commission has been reviewing Kondo’s performance over the past four months, his first formal evaluation in three years, and plans to take up the issue at its next meeting Wednesday.

    Ethics Executive Director Les Kondo, seen here at a state Ethics Commission meeting in July 2014, is under fire for his view of what the Ethics Code allows or prohibits.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    There have been rumblings that Kondo may be out of a job as soon as next week but Broglio said Thursday that he doesn’t think that will be the case.

    Kondo has liberally construed the Ethics Code over the past four years, issuing a series of directives and recommendations for lawmakers and state employees to follow.

    The guidance has irked many, evidently to the point that it prompted Souki to pen his April 27 letter to Broglio about the “dismaying pattern” he’s seen of the commission staff “trying to rewrite the Ethics Code” to conform to their own notions of ethical conduct.

    Souki is particularly

  • Ian Lind: Still No Love for Public Interest Bills at Hawaii Legislature

    · By Ian Lind

    The Legislature should wrap up its 2015 session this week on schedule, despite the excitement created by the Senate’s last-minute palace coup.

    With the end in sight, I stopped to take a look at how some of the basic bread-and-butter public interest legislation, the kinds of bills that would increase openness and accountability, ultimately fared. These are the kind of things that usually don’t make headlines, but that would make life easier for concerned citizens.

    It’s a bit depressing to see that the several agencies most often seen as being essential to the public interest — the State Ethics Commission, Campaign Spending Commission, Office of Elections, and Office of Information Practices — entered the session with very limited agendas. A check of the packages of bills they had introduced shows they were extremely modest.

    Not a single bill introduced by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission passed this legislative session.

    Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo has advised his commissioners in recent meetings that legislators have not been very receptive to proposals that would strengthen provisions of the state ethics code that are hard to enforce because the existing law is either lax or ambiguous. Whether this same insecurity is common to the other agencies isn’t clear, but is likely a factor in their limited proposals.

    And even those limited initiatives produced meager results.

    The State Ethics Commission introduced a package of nine bills with House and Senate versions.  Not a single one was passed.

    Some

  • Peter Carlisle: Dropping a Dime on Ethics Scofflaws

    · By Peter Carlisle

    Any colloquial discussion of ethical conduct and government employees should commence with rats.

    To rat on another is to inform on or betray. It used to be to do so required no more effort than dropping a dime. For you youngsters under 40, the reference to a coin may be difficult to comprehend. These days with credit, debit and prepaid phone cards, the use of a coin is an archaic way to make a phone call and a dime is insufficient for either a call or a cup of coffee.

    In the hallowed place where I spent most of my life, the last century, the phrase “dropping a dime” was criminal underworld slang describing surreptitiously providing information to the police. The expression dates from a time when a public pay telephone call cost 10 cents and a dime was dropped into the slot. This facilitated a call to the police or other authority by an anonymous informer without fear of the call being traced.

    State Rep. Romy Cachola serves in the Legislature despite the ethics troubles he ran into stemming from his time as a Honolulu City Council member.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    In this century the dime-dropper has morphed into the wondrous whistleblower. Nowadays a person who truthfully blows the whistle by revealing corruption or wrongdoing in government is often admired and legally protected. So I want to claim some small level of recognition as a whistleblower on a pre-eminent role model of ethical behavior, former City Council member

  • Ian Lind: Lobbyist Spending Is Concentrated at the Top

    · By Ian Lind

    Spending by special interest groups lobbying lawmakers during the first part of the current legislative session is running well below last year’s pace, according to reports filed last week with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

    The more than 200 interest groups with registered lobbyists reported spending a total of $832,808 during the period from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28.

    That was 21 percent less than the $1,058,360 spent during the same two-month period a year ago, and 33 percent less than the $1,250,532 spent in 2013.

    The numbers don’t suggest any reason for the decline in spending over the three-year period, although fewer groups filed lobbyist expenditure reports this year.

    Outside the Hawaii State Ethics Commission conference room.

    There were 270 interest groups that filed lobbyist expenditure statements for the period covering the first two months of 2013, commission records show. That number climbed last year to 286, but dropped to 202 in the current year.

    While the number of lobbying groups dropped, the average amount spent rose this year to $5,338, up from $4,899 a year ago.

    Improved Access to Lobbyist Data

    It is much easier to compile this kind of overview of lobbying activities than it used to be just a few years ago, thanks to an increasingly robust online reporting system implemented by the ethics commission.

    The commission now uses the state’s data portal, data.hawaii.gov, to make its various types of documents readily available to the public. Lobbying reports include registration statements filed by individual lobbyists documenting their authorization to lobby on behalf of

  • Civil Beat Database: Checking Up on Top State Officials Just Got a Lot Easier

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Ever wonder which Hawaii lawmaker made the most money last year — and how?

    What about the financial interests of board members who determine everything from education policy to state land use?

    Or learning what companies the governor and his department heads have a financial stake in?

    Searching the financial disclosure records for hundreds of Hawaii officials has never been for the faint-hearted. The Hawaii State Ethics Commission maintains thousands of documents but a civic-minded citizen who wanted to know, for instance, which lawmakers own stock in Apple would have to undertake a tedious research project.

    But checking up on your elected and appointed officials, including many members of important boards and commissions, just got a lot easier.

    We’ve created a database that lets users easily explore hundreds of financial disclosure statements filed by top state officials and candidates for elected office.

    Civil Beat has created a searchable database for the financial disclosure statements filed by state officials since 2014. Handwritten records like this one filed by Sen. John Green won’t be a problem anymore.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Our interest in government transparency is no secret — especially when it comes to financial disclosure records. Civil Beat recently filed suit to gain access to the records of members of 15 state boards who are now required to disclose their financial interests. A judge ruled in our favor but the state has appealed and the case has been bumped to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

    But there’s

  • Board Member Financial Disclosures May Be Released Sooner Than Expected

    · By Nathan Eagle

    The public may get to see the financial disclosures statements of certain state board members a year earlier than expected.

    The Hawaii State Ethics Commission agreed Wednesday to send a memo out to board members later this week letting them know that their financial disclosure statements for 2014 will be released if they file a short-form report this year.

    Alternatively, the board members will have the option of filing a new long-form disclosure statement for 2015. The reports are due by June 1.

    Either way, the Ethics Commission’s decision should lead to more timely disclosures for board members affected by a law the Hawaii Legislature passed unanimously last year. Earlier commission decisions had clouded the issue of when the disclosures would be required.

    The Hawaii State Ethics Commission discusses financial disclosures Wednesday morning.

    Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

    Long-form reports are due on even-numbered years. These more-detailed financial disclosure statements identify in broad monetary ranges how much the person earns each year and the source of that income; property and business interests; stocks; memberships on outside boards or trusts; and creditors among other information.

    Short-form reports, allowed during odd-numbered years, allow the board member to simply disclose what has changed from the previous filing or check a box indicating everything remains the same.

    The commission’s decision to make public the 2014 long-form reports for board members who file a short-form report this year probably won’t matter to the vast majority of state employees who are required to publicly disclose their financial interests. This includes the governor,

  • Hawaii Monitor: Is a Weak Lobbying Law Getting Weaker?

    · By Ian Lind

    Forty years after passage of the state’s first law regulating lobbyists, requiring them to publicly register, identify their clients, and disclose what they spend to influence the legislative process, the agency charged with administering and enforcing the law is suffering a major crisis of confidence.

    In what turned out to be a rather extraordinary meeting of the State Ethics Commission on Feb. 18, Executive Director Les Kondo briefed commissioners on his plan to revisit and potentially reverse a 2007 commission policy requiring so-called “goodwill lobbying” to be disclosed.

    Kondo was responding to a request by the commission to review any staff plans to proactively investigate matters not tied to specific complaints or required activities. It was an unusual request, and it opened the door for an unusually candid presentation of preliminary legal concerns that would otherwise not have been presented publicly until more thorough research and vetting of a legal opinion had been done.

    Les Kondo, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, speaks during a meeting last year.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    Kondo told the commission that he planned to review the policy toward goodwill lobbying because he now believes the specific language of the law is not broad enough to demand disclosure of social gatherings, whether one-on-one dinners between legislators and lobbyists, or receptions bringing dozens of legislators together to drink and dine with special interest groups, where specific legislation is not discussed.

    “Professional lobbyists take legislators to meals off-session all

  • No More Free Trips for Hawaii Public School Teachers

    · By Ian Lind

    Public school teachers will no longer be allowed to accept free trips and other benefits from private companies for arranging and participating in educational travel for groups of students and parents, according to a ruling by the State Ethics Commission.

    Department of Education officials have already been told the free trips given teachers by private educational travel companies are “impermissible gifts” that violate the state ethics code, and that the practice should be stopped. The commission will now notify the superintendent in writing of its decision.

    Les Kondo, commission executive director, is not insisting on cancelation of trips already scheduled and booked, including one set to begin within weeks, citing the complexity and potential cost of unraveling travel reservations. 

    A McKinley High School classroom

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    The issue was discussed by the State Ethics Commission at its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday. Kondo said the commission was alerted to the issue by questions from a Windward Oahu school. The school was not identified, and Kondo said other schools are believed to offer similar trips.

    Ethics staff were unable to find out how many schools, teachers, or students the new ruling will impact because there do not appear to be data collected about past trips by the Department of Education.

    One company identified by Kondo is EF Educational Travel. According to its website, the privately owned company is based in Lucerne, Switzerland, boasts over 45,000 employees, and has offices in 53 countries.

    “The teacher,

  • 30 State Employees Pay Fines for Accepting Free Rounds of Golf

    · By Nathan Eagle

    High-level state employees have agreed to pay thousands of dollars in fines to settle allegations by the Hawaii Ethics Commission that for years they accepted free rounds of golf from top private firms who had business before the state.

    The lengthy investigation wrapped up this week with a formal resolution of charges against nine state employees plus a notice that cases against 21 other public workers were resolved after they paid administrative fines.

    Les Kondo, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, speaks during a meeting last year.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    The commission named eight of the nine state employees who had formal charges filed against them. They include:

    Marshall Ando, Department of Transportation, Harbors Division, Engineering Branch, Design Section Head: Administrative Penalty, $7,500
    Gerobin Carnate, Department of Transportation, Highways Division, Materials Testing and Research Branch, Structural Materials Section Head: Administrative Penalty, $6,000
    Brian Kashiwaeda, University of Hawaii, Community Colleges Facilities and Environmental Health Office, Director: Administrative Penalty, $3,200
    Brian Minaai, University of Hawaii, Associate Vice President for Capital Improvements: Administrative Penalty, $3,000
    Eric Nishimoto, Department of Accounting and General Services, Public Works Division, Project Management Branch Chief: Administrative Penalty, $5,600
    Alvin Takeshita, Department of Transportation, Highways Division, Highways Division Administrator; Prior Engineering Program Manager, Traffic Branch Head: Administrative Penalty, $5,750
    David Tamanaha, University of Hawaii-Maui College Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs: Administrative Penalty, $1,750
    Jadine Urasaki, Department of Transportation, Deputy Director for Capital Improvement Projects; Prior Department of Education Facilities Development Branch, Public Works Manager: Administrative Penalty, $1,500

    An engineer with the Department of Agriculture who used to work with the Department

  • Two State Board Members Fight Release of Financial Disclosure Statements

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Two state board members are getting involved in the ongoing legal battle over the release of financial disclosure statements.

    Sandi Kato-Klutke, a member of the Agribusiness Development Corporation, and Chad McDonald, who serves on the Land Use Commission, have asked the Hawaii Supreme Court to keep their financial disclosure statements confidential pending an appeal.

    The Hawaii Attorney General’s office, which is representing them in their official capacities, filed the motion for a writ of mandamus last week. It marks the latest development in a lawsuit Civil Beat, represented by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, filed in September seeking the release of the financial disclosure statements of the current members of the ADC, LUC and University of Hawaii Board of Regents.

    The legal debate over the release of financial disclosure statements of certain state board members has moved to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    The Legislature in April unanimously passed a bill that added 15 boards and commissions to the list of those whose members must publicly disclose their financial ties, including those three boards. The law took effect July 8 without Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s signature.

    The Ethics Commission had advocated for this type of legislation for years, believing the public’s help is necessary to identify potential conflicts of interest among powerful state board members.  The commission has found itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place though over the interpretation of the law.

    The five-member volunteer

  • Financial Disclosure Debate Moving to Hawaii Supreme Court

    · By Nathan Eagle

    The debate over whether the Hawaii State Ethics Commission must release the financial disclosure statements of certain state board members is heading to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

    First Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura last month ruled in favor of Honolulu Civil Beat’s request for a preliminary injunction that would force the commission to release the records immediately.

    On Friday, she denied the state Attorney General’s request for a stay pending appeal. The state is expected to instead ask the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus as Civil Beat had proposed.

    First Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura decided Friday that the Hawaii Supreme Court should provide guidance on Civil Beat’s financial disclosure lawsuit against the state.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The news outlet’s attorney, Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said it will likely be late January before the request for the writ is made. He was pleased with the judge’s ruling, saying it should provide for a more expeditious remedy.

    It’s unknown what the Supreme Court will do though. The justices could decide that Nishimura’s Nov. 12 ruling should stand and the records should be released immediately, or they could direct the parties to go through a more formal appeals process that would likely take significantly longer.

    Recognizing that once the records are released “the bell cannot be un-rung,” Nishimura told Black and Deputy Attorney General Robyn Chun that asking for a writ of mandamus is not just

  • Ige’s Interim AG Follows in Predecessor’s Footsteps by Fighting Disclosure Ruling

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Gov. David Ige’s burgeoning administration is following in the footsteps of Gov. Neil Abercrombie when it comes to resisting the release of certain state board members’ financial disclosure statements.

    State lawmakers unanimously passed a bill in April adding 15 boards to the list of those whose members must annually disclose their financial interests. Ige, a member of the Senate at the time, also voiced support for it in his campaign for governor.

    Delaying the release of some of the records through a legal challenge would limit the public’s ability to identify potential conflicts of interest — something the Hawaii State Ethics Commission has said it could use help with.

    Civil Beat filed a memorandum in opposition to the Hawaii Attorney General’s request for a stay pending appeal in the financial disclosure lawsuit Monday in 1st Circuit Court.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    David Louie, attorney general under Abercrombie, signaled his intent last month to appeal a court ruling that granted Civil Beat’s request for a preliminary injunction to force the Ethics Commission to release financial disclosure statements for current members of the Land Use Commission, University of Hawaii Board of Regents and Agribusiness Development Corporation Board of Directors.

    The Ethics Commission has decided to follow the AG’s advice instead of its own executive director, Les Kondo, and not release the financial disclosures for members of the affected boards if they had filed their form prior to the law taking effect July 8.

    The disclosure forms identify in broad monetary ranges how much

  • Hawaii Attorney General to Appeal Financial Disclosure Ruling

    · By Nathan Eagle

    It could be months if not longer before the Hawaii State Ethics Commission releases the financial disclosure statements of certain state board members that a judge ruled last week must be made public in accordance with a new law.

    That’s because Hawaii Attorney General David Louie plans to appeal the court’s decision, which is expected to keep the records private while that lengthy process plays out.

    The five-member commission voted 4-0 on Wednesday to not object to the AG’s move to appeal. Commissioner Melinda Wood abstained. The vote came after an almost hour-long discussion behind closed doors with Louie and two deputy attorneys general.

    The five-member Hawaii State Ethics Commission, executive director and staff prepare to meet Wednesday.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    “The Attorney General believes that Act 230 and the complaint presents an important legal issue and should have appellate review,” Ethics Commissioner Susan DeGusman said before making her motion.

    “The commission has no objection to the Attorney General filing an appeal to the preliminary injunction and/or taking necessary steps to seek further proceedings to obtain full and final appellate review on the merits,” she said.

    “The Attorney General believes that Act 230 and the complaint presents an important legal issue and should have appellate review.” — Ethics Commissioner Susan DeGusman

    Civil Beat filed a lawsuit in September challenging the commission’s decision to not release the financial disclosure statements of the members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Land Use

  • Court: State Must Release Financial Disclosures for Boards

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Updated 6:50 p.m., 11/12/2014

    First Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura has granted Honolulu Civil Beat’s request for a preliminary injunction to require the Hawaii State Ethics Commission to make public the financial disclosure statements of certain state board members.

    Nishimura ruled from the bench on Wednesday morning in a case brought by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest on behalf of the news outlet.

    “The Legislature found that the public has an overriding interest in the release of financial disclosure statements by members of the state’s 15 most powerful boards and commissions,” said Brian Black, executive director of the Law Center. 

    “Judge Nishimura deferred to the Legislature and ordered the State Ethics Commission to disclose records requested by Civil Beat,” he said. “The Ethics Commission now must decide whether it will continue to defy the Legislature by appealing Judge Nishimura’s decision.”

    Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest Executive Director Brian Black, right, speaks at the Ethics Commission’s September meeting.

    Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

    Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo said he expects the commission to consider the ruling and how to proceed at its meeting next Wednesday. He said he hopes the Attorney General’s office will participate in that discussion.

    Update The state Attorney General’s office, which represents the commission, is reviewing the court’s decision and considering its options, including whether to appeal, said Anne Lopez, the AG’s special assistant.

    Attorney General David Louie said in a statement that he continues

  • Hawaii State Employees Pay the Price for Taking Free Rounds of Golf

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Twenty-one state employees have agreed to pay a combined $16,500 in fines for accepting free rounds of golf from private contractors, consultants and vendors, according to a settlement with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

    The resolution issued Monday by the commission does not name any of the state employees, instead only identifying them by department and position. The settlement does, however, list the 15 firms that the commission believes provided the free rounds of golf, tournament entry fees, drinks and food.

    The biggest offenders were four Department of Transportation engineers, two University of Hawaii managers and one UH architect who were each fined $1,500 for accepting free rounds of golf over the past few years.

    The Hawaii State Ethics Commission fined 21 employees $16,500 for accepting free rounds of golf under a settlement released Monday.

    Wojciech Kulicki via Flickr

    Ten other employees, including the Department of Accounting and General Services administrator, were fined $500 each and four employees paid $250 apiece in penalties.

    The investigation into the three agencies involved 49 employees. The commission has initiated formal charge proceedings against “a number of other employees” who were not part of this resolution. 

    The settlement notes that the commission has not made any findings or conclusions that any of these 21 employees, in fact, violated the State Ethics Code. But there was enough evidence, including employees admitting to accepting the free rounds of golf, that the commission believes it could have filed formal charges.