Dozens of legislators attended a free dinner last night organized by producers of genetically modified food but very few lawmakers cleared their attendance ahead of time with the state Ethics Commission, commission executive director Les Kondo said.
The closed-door event, called “A Taste of Ag,” was organized by the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association to promote “locally grown organic, conventional and genetically engineered produce and products.”
It was held at the Brasserie Du Vin Restaurant on Bethel Street in downtown Honolulu and featured entrees including “opakapaka ceviche on taro chips with sea asparagus” and “grilled Kauai shrimp with papaya BBQ sauce.”
Kondo, who stirred up legislators and lobbyists last month when he said that $200 free tickets to a charitable fundraising event weren’t permitted under the ethics laws, said yesterday he frankly didn’t know if legislators could accept invitations to “Taste of Ag” event.
Deciding yes or no depended on too many factors that Kondo said he didn’t have reliable information on.
One legislator, Rep. Joey Manahan, D-29th called the Ethics Commission Monday to ask about accepting the Taste of Ag invitation. Another, Rep. Ty Cullen, D-41st, sent a list of invitations to several events, including the Taste of Ag, that he had received and asked if acceptance was permitted, said Kondo.
For the Taste of Ag event, Kondo said, “we’re not telling them that they can’t accept. But we’re not saying that they can accept. We’re still researching.”
For Manahan, the advice from Kondo wasn’t very helpful.
“It’s very confusing,” he said.
But Manahan also said Kondo told him that that because he had touched base with the commission, no action would be taken against him if the dinner is eventually ruled to be ethically out-of-bounds.
The Taste of Ag is an annual event that has been popular with legislators, according to Manahan.
“In past years, many of us have attended this event, if not all of us — senators and representatives,” said Manahan.
Kondo said his office was told that 37 representatives and 18 senators had accepted invitations to this year’s Taste of Ag.
Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, did not respond to requests for comment.
Maluafiti is a registered lobbyist for the association, which says on its website that it promotes “the considerable benefits that biotechnology and biotech crops can have for farmers, the environment, and for communities around the world.”
Genetically modified organisms – known as GMO’s – have been a source of considerable controversy in the Islands and elsewhere.
Several years ago, Native Hawaiian protestors chained themselves to doors at a University of Hawaii regents meeting, demanding that UH drop a patent it held on genetically modified taro plants.
HCIA “has had the fortitude to become much more visible to elected officials and has strived to educate policy makers, the Ag industry and the community on how agricultural biotechnology keeps ag lands in continual production, therein supporting our economy and sustaining the world’s food supply,” according to the organization’s website.
Sponsors of Taste of Ag, besides the HCIA, included the Council for Biotechnology Information, CropLife America, the state Department of Agriculture, the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.
Kondo said he will need to learn more about the purpose and cost of the Taste of Ag event and present that information to a meeting of the full Ethics Commission March 16 for a reading on the propriety of legislative acceptance of invitations to the dinner.
The commission is also scheduled to discuss a controversial bill now pending at the Legislature to amend the state ethics code.
That amendment was written after Kondo last month told legislators that state ethics law didn’t allow public officials to accept free $200 tickets to a fundraiser hosted by the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs, a nonprofit organization.
An original amendment, authored by Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, would have allowed legislators and other state employees to accept gifts of $200 or less from any source for any reason.
The bill was re-written again after Kondo and others testified that the proposed measure invited public corruption, or at least the appearance of it.
The newest version was up for a final v\ote in the Senate today but was changed again and now is on Thursday’s Senate agenda.
The measure would have allowed acceptance of tickets worth up to $200 to charitable events organized by nonprofits registered under sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Kondo had suggested to legislators that the ethics measure be amended to allow, under certain circumstances, acceptance of tickets to fundraisers organized by charities.
But the version up for a vote today included tickets to events organized by nonprofits like labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association whose purposes are not charitable.
Kondo said yesterday he was “surprised” to learn that the re-written ethics bill allows gifts from such groups.
Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kahuku, Laie, Kaaawa, Kaneohe), today asked his colleagues to approve another amendment which exempts tickets to fundraisers hosted by nonprofit, charities organized under section 501C(3) of the Internal Revenue Cose.
The Taste of Ag event was not a fundraiser and no dollar value could be immediately placed on the invitations sent to legislators.
Kondo told legislators that the ethics code allows public officials to accept free meals of “nominal” value. He said the commission has set the limit at $25.
The HCIA has reported in previous lobbying disclosure forms that it spent $11,220 on lobbying activities between March 1 and April 30, 2010, the same period when last year’s Taste of Ag was staged.
It also reported paying Maluafiti $4,000 during the same period.
HCIA reported $18,445 in 2010 lobbying expenses, including $6,000 in lobbyist salaries.