BY JIM DOOLEY – Many lawmakers who received free invitations to a high-powered private reception next week at the Hilton Hawaiian Village will now have to pay $36.75 apiece to attend.

The change came after organizers of the event, which features appearances by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and senior Hawaii U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, checked with the state Ethics Commission on the propriety of giving free invitations to legislators.

The event is one of dozens of receptions, dinners, fundraisers and other gatherings thrown each year during the legislative session which until recently offered free admission to lawmakers.

Newly-appointed Ethics Commission executive director Leslie Kondo advised Senators and Representatives last month that the Ethics Code restricts acceptance of many such gifts.

Next week’s reception is sponsored by the Pacific Resources Partnership, a consortium of the Carpenters Union and building contractors, which checked with Kondo’s office after the free invites were distributed to officeholders at the state Capitol.

Kondo told PRP’s lawyers that he felt only legislative leaders with “protocol” connections to the reception could accept free tickets, said John White, PRP executive director.

White said he understood that “protocol” standing would include “the chairmen of a transportation committee and leadership in the Senate and House where their work area would dictate a very clear connection,” said White.

White said the event is “a welcome reception for Secretary Ray LaHood.  We’ve tried to invite a cross section of community leaders in government, business, labor and non-profits to meet the secretary, to have a chance to talk with him informally and to hear a few remarks from him.”

PRP is a leading supporter of the $5 billion Honolulu rapid transit project which broke ground last month and depends largely on federal transit funding.

In a letter today to legislators, White rescinded the free invitations to lawmakers who lack the proper protocol.

“Although we wanted to provide the unique opportunity to hear a ranking U.S official to all legislators without charge, PRP has been advised that this may raise issues with (the ethics code),” White wrote.

“To assist you in participating at this event, PRP has determined that the fair value for the cost of the food at the reception is $36.75,” the letter continued.

“If this was paid by you to PRP, we believe your attendance would not raise (ethical) issues,” White wrote.

“We regret this unfortunate situation but PRP believes that this option would nullify the perception issue that was highlighted in recent legislative hearings,” the letter said.

The reception invitations and ethical questions about them were first reported publicly by Hawaii Reporter Wednesday.

Kondo has said that his position on gift ethics has mirrored advice given by the Commission and its staff long before he took office.

But it has stirred controversy at the Legislature this year and provoked introduction of a bill that would have allowed any state employee to accept gifts valued at $200 or less even if intended to influence an official action by the recipient.

That language in the bill brought an outcry from public interest groups and the measure as now amended would allow officials to accept invitations worth up to $200 to fundraising events organized by or for tax-exempt, non-profit charities.

This week the Ethics Commission voted 3-1 in opposition to that bill, noting that it would unfairly help large non-profits that lobby government for funding.

The measure is now pending in the House of Representatives.

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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