Cartoon courtesy of Indiana University-Purdue University

BY JIM DOOLEY – State Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo’s search for missing lobbyist gifts at the Hawaii State Legislature has deeply offended state Rep. Joseph Souki, D-8th (Wailuku, Waihee, Waiehu, Puuohala, Waikapu).

The gifts were boxes of film and television DVDs from Relativity Media, a Hollywood company that lobbied legislators this year to boost tax credits for motion picture and video productions in Hawaii.

The company first reported to Kondo’s office that it gave out 35 sets of the DVDs at the Legislature, then dropped the number to 25 sets, adding that it did not keep track of who accepted them.

Relativity first valued the gifts at $290 apiece, then later amended that to $6.30 each, saying the DVDs cost the company nothing because they were “contractually allotted” to the firm. The $6.30 figure came from the value of each box plus 30 cents in Kinko’s copying charges.

Twelve legislators reported receipt of the gifts, saying later that they had either sent them back to Relativity, paid for them or donated them to schools and charities.

Last week Kondo sent letters to all lawmakers, seeking their help in finding the other 13 gifts.

Kondo’s letter aggravated Souki, a veteran legislator who formerly served as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

State Rep. Joseph Souki

Souki fired back a letter to Kondo that said, “Your letter and insinuations are insulting.”

Souki said he had received nothing from Relativity Media.

“I believe your overbearing manner is insulting to duly elected legislators,” Souki’s letter continued. “I don’t need you to act as my conscience.”

Kondo wrote back to Souki, saying, “It was not my or the state Ethics Commission’s intent to insult you or any other legislator by asking for your assistance.  I also was not attempting to insinuate anything.”

He said his office is simply seeking legislators’ assistance in determining who received the DVDs.

Kondo said in the letter to Souki that, based on information gathered to date, “there appear to be questions about whether legislators and/or staff who received the DVDs were required to report the DVDs on a gifts disclosure statement and/or whether it was appropriate for legislators and/or staff to accept the DVDs from Relativity Media under the State Ethics Code.”

The Ethics Commission is responsible for administering the state Ethics Code, Kondo wrote.

“When there is credible information that raise(s) questions about whether state employees, including legislators, are complying with the statute, it is also the Ethics Commission’s statutory duty to inquire,” Kondo wrote.

Legislators are the “people who are most likely to have information relevant for our purpose,” Kondo continued.

“While I regret the imposition on your and the other legislators’ time, to do our job, it is important that we ask for your assistance and get your cooperation,” the letter concluded.

Relativity’s lobbying effort failed, but the company gave it a solid try.

The firm flew Hollywood personalities to Hawaii to testify at legislative hearings, and enlisted the help of former President Bill Clinton, who wrote to lawmakers on the company’s behalf.

Relativity also threw an invitation-only reception at the Mandalay restaurant in downtown Honolulu.

State Rep. Mele Carroll

State Rep. Mele Carroll, who accepted and later returned an Apple IPad 2 from Relativity, coordinated the reception invitations for Relativity.

Relativity originally valued the IPad at $700, then dropped the estimation to $500-$700.

When Carroll, D-13th (Kahoolawe, Molokini, Lanai, Molokai, Keanae, Wailua, Nahiku, Hana), mailed the IPad back to Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh Sept. 9, she thanked him for “the kind and generous gift” meant to help her and her staff “better reach my constituents.”

However, Carroll wrote, “I must RETURN the gift of an APPLE I-PAD you sent me,” Carroll told Kavanaugh (emphasis in original ).

As for who attended the Valentine’s bash, Relativity said it didn’t keep track of names.

The firm initially estimated that “50-70” legislators were there, suggesting that a staffer in Carroll’s office who “helped us send invites and check people in” might have kept better records.

The company later amended its lobbying disclosure form sent to the Ethics Commission, saying “30-50” legislators attended the event and most stayed for only a brief time.

Copies of Relativity Media’s lobbying disclosure forms are here: Disclosure 1 Amendment 1 Disclosure 2 Amendment 2

All told, the company reported that its 2011 Hawaii lobbying expenses totaled $218,220.50.

Kondo, an attorney who has previously served as head of the state Office of Information Practices and as a member of the Public Utilities Commission, was newly-installed in the ethics post when the Legislature convened this year.

He wasted little time in warning that many gifts and meals bestowed on public officials by lobbyists and their clients were prohibited under the Ethics Code.

Kondo’s actions clearly irked some at the Capitol and a bill was introduced in the Senate that would have legitimized the giving and receiving of many gifts worth up to $200 apiece.

That measure eventually died the same death as the tax credit bill.

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Jim Dooley joined the Hawaii Reporter staff as an investigative reporter in October 2010. Before that, he has worked as a print and television reporter in Hawaii since 1973, beginning as a wire service reporter with United Press International. He joined Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, working as general assignment and City Hall reporter until 1978. In 1978, he moved to full-time investigative reporting in for The Advertiser; he joined KITV news in 1996 as investigative reporter. Jim returned to Advertiser 2001, working as investigative reporter and court reporter until 2010. Reach him at Jim@hawaiireporter.com