Relations between the Legislature and the State Ethics Commission have rarely been warm and fuzzy, and for the past several years have been downright chilly.
The source of the tension is no mystery. The Ethics Commission administers and enforces the state’s ethics and lobbyist laws to assure the highest standards of ethical conduct. And several times since 2011, its rulings have further restricted the ability of legislators to accept gifts from lobbyists and the organizations they represent. For example, legislators can no longer accept tickets to high-priced charity events and other kinds of freebies that once were considered fair game.
But now a former legislator has been appointed to the Ethics Commission.
Rey Graulty had already had a long career in public service before being appointed by Gov. David Ige to a four-year term.
Graulty served two terms in the state House in the early 1980s, and was elected to the Senate in 1992. He was named state insurance commissioner by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano in 1997, and appointed a Circuit Court judge in 1999. He retired from the court in 2009.
If legislators were hoping that having a former colleague sitting on the commission might bring a little relief from the progressive tightening of ethics restrictions, Graulty wasted little time in shutting down such speculation.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of guidance. I think we all know the law. It’s a matter of enforcement.” — Rey Graulty, new Ethics Commission member
Some state workers are continuing to accept free rounds of golf despite the Hawaii State Ethics Commission cracking down on the longstanding practice.
The commission dove into the issue in July 2013 with an advisory statement that said, in bold letters, “absent extraordinary and rare circumstances, the Commission construes the State Ethics Code to prohibit state employees and legislators from accepting complimentary golf.”
Four months later, the commission fined a state Department of Transportation engineer $7,500 for accepting thousands of dollars worth of golf tournament entry fees and prizes, which included a Rolex watch and Oakley sunglasses. DOT vendors Mitsunaga & Associates and TM Designers gave him the gifts.
The commission went on to investigate more than four dozen state employees accepting free golf from a host of contractors, consultants and major vendors doing business with the state. By last February the commission had fined at least 30 public workers a total of more than $40,000.
The commission identified 26 businesses providing the gifts, including KAI Hawaii, Parsons Brinckerhoff and Bowers + Kubota. Many of the firms have had multi-million-dollar contracts with the state.
On the latest round of gift disclosure statements, which were due June 30, more free golf is being reported. But this time, it’s a labor union providing the gifts.
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission is chasing down state employees and board members who have failed to file their financial disclosure statements for 2015.
The reports, which were due June 30, contain information about the person’s income, their ownership or beneficial interests in businesses, creditors, real estate holdings, clients they represent before other state agencies, and any outside boards or companies they serve on.
As of Tuesday, there were 67 state employees and 321 members of boards and commissions who have yet to file their disclosure statement for this year. That’s about 21 percent of everyone who’s required to file by law.
There are just over 1,800 state employees and board members who have to file annual financial disclosure statements with the commission.
Not all of those are public records, but the publicly available files include those of all 76 state lawmakers, the governor and his Cabinet, along with members of more than a dozen powerful boards, including the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Public Utilities Commission and Hawaii Community Development Authority. (Civil Beat has created a searchable database of the public filings.)
There’s an administrative fine of $50
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission plans to welcome its newest member Wednesday.
Reynaldo Graulty will be replacing Ed Broglio, whose term ended June 30.
Graulty is a retired circuit judge and former state lawmaker who served as insurance commissioner under Gov. Ben Cayetano.
The House honored him with a resolution in 2009 for his years of service to Hawaii, which include the rare distinction of working in all three branches of government.
The Ethics Commission’s website says Graulty also was also an adjunct professor of ethics at Chaminade University.
Graulty’s term runs through June 30, 2019.
The commission is set to take up the issues of questionable gifts to state employees as well as free trips to teachers who chaperone student educational tours at its meeting Wednesday morning.
The commission also plans to pick a new chair and vice chair. Broglio was the former chair.
Read the full agenda here.
Updated 3:15 p.m., 7/8/2015
Hawaii lawmakers have had a rocky relationship with state Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo ever since he was appointed in 2011.
Many have been less than thrilled with his strict interpretation of the Ethics Code and opinions on what gifts they are allowed to accept from lobbyists, or what events they can attend with complimentary tickets.
Legislative allowances have been another sore point. But a Civil Beat review of nearly $4 million in state lawmakers’ expenses over the past four years shows they are changing their habits based on the commission’s advice even if they don’t like it — including not billing taxpayers for their dry cleaning or charitable donations.
SidebarEthics Commission Tells Lawmakers How They Should Spend AllowancesJun 19Hawaii House Reps Spend on Refrigeration, Mediation, TranslationOct 22State Senators Spend Allowances on Everything from Salt to Travel AbroadOct 22
“We’ve tightened up use for personal items, partly due to the attention it’s gotten by the Ethics Commission, but partially also because it made sense,” said House Chief Clerk Brian Takeshita, who reviews and approves expenses for the 51 state representatives.
But some expenses continue to raise eyebrows.
Rep. Bob McDermott, a well-known critic of the state’s controversial Pono Choices sexual health curriculum, spent almost $2,500 to fly Dr.
Civil Beat’s yearlong fight over the release of financial disclosure statements for certain state board members wrapped up Wednesday after ethics officials told a Circuit Court judge the records were being released after all.
A recent policy decision by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission resulted in the public release of the annual financial statements. Civil Beat had asked for the records after the Legislature passed Act 230, which added 15 of the most powerful boards and commissions to the list of state employees who must disclose their financial interests. The commission at first balked at making the reports public, then changed its mind.
“The Ethics Commission finally implemented the intent of Act 230,” said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which represented the news outlet.
“The public now has the ability to review board members’ disclosures for potential financial conflicts of interest.”
On July 14, Civil Beat requested the 2014 disclosure statements for members of three of the 15 boards added to the list — the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Land Use Commission and Agribusiness Development Corporation Board of Directors.
The commission denied that request in part on July 29, saying any current board member who filed their disclosure form before the
Les Kondo is still executive director of the State Ethics Commission after apparently surviving an unusually lengthy and contentious evaluation, and a move by one or more commissioners to fire him.
For now, at least.
That was the word after the five members of the commission emerged from behind closed doors early Wednesday afternoon to announce they had completed their review of Kondo’s job performance, a process that has taken 10 meetings over nine months, additional meetings of a special subcommittee, and more than seven hours of discussion in closed-door executive sessions over the past two weeks.
“The commission has concluded its discussions in private with its executive director,” commission chairman Ed Broglio said. “We will be doing further revaluations in the future.”
With that, the meeting was adjourned.
“Is Les Kondo still the commission’s executive director,” Broglio was then asked.
His reply was simple and direct.
“Yes,” he answered, without any further embellishment.
The meeting was a continuation of the commission’s regular May 27 meeting, which had ended without the commission reaching a conclusion on Kondo’s future.
Kondo has drawn fire from legislators for the tough stance he has taken on several ethics issues, beginning just weeks after he assumed the commission’s top post at the beginning of 2011. In one of his first official actions, Kondo advised legislators that they could not accept free tickets to a $200 fundraising event hosted by the nonprofit but politically connected Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs.
After meeting for more than three hours Wednesday, the State Ethics Commission retreated into a closed executive session to consider the fate of its executive director, Honolulu attorney Les Kondo.
But the meeting ended about 5 p.m. with no decision on whether Kondo would stay on as executive director. Kondo declined comment except to say the discussion would continue at a later date.
Wednesday’s session is the last phase of a confidential personnel evaluation of Kondo that has extended over several months, and has been rumored to have sparked a move by some commissioners to seek his termination.
Kondo has generated controversy since he was appointed to his post in 2011 as the commission, in response to his guidance, has adopted increasingly restrictive interpretations of several key provisions of the state ethics law.
Kondo has been criticized by legislators for clamping down on gifts from lobbyists, including free tickets to charitable events. In a scathing April 26 letter, House Speaker Joe Souki called on the commission to “disavow” all of its new and more restrictive positions taken since Kondo’s appointment.
Little has been made public about Kondo’s review, and nothing has been revealed about the criteria or procedures that have been used.
Updated 2:15 p.m., 5/22/2015
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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