BY JIM DOOLEY – The Hawaii Ethics Commission today opposed a bill that would loosen restrictions on gift-giving to public officials, including legislators.
The bill, SB671, has changed shape several times since it was introduced in January and now would allow officials to accept free tickets worth $200 or less to fundraising events organized by or for charities.
The commission voted 3-1 to oppose the bill.
Ethics rules now prohibit acceptance of free invitations to meals or other events worth more than $25.
Legislators or other officials are free to purchase their own tickets to such events.
Ethics Commission vice chairman David Randell said today that a key element in judging the propriety of accepting gifts is the intent behind the invitation.
If the gift is being given to influence the official actions of a state employee, then it can’t be accepted, he indicated.
“I think that is the overriding principle,” Randell said.
Another element is whether it can be shown that the public will benefit if a legislator or other official accepts gifts, commissioners said.
Commissioners also said they were concerned that the pending ethics bill was written to benefit nonprofit, charitable institutions, but some of those charities are trying to obtain government contracts or grants.
And some events organized by charities are “constructed to provide access to legislators,” said Commissioner Cassandra J. Leolani Abdul.
Complicating the issues is the fact that some non-profits have profit-making subsidiaries, Abdul noted.
The ethics bill was passed by the state Senate and is now pending in the House of Representatives.
The commission will express its opposition to the measure in a letter to the Legislature.
As the commission and officials grapple with issues raised by individual invitations to specific events, more invitations to new events are being sent to legislators, Hawaii Reporter has learned.
For instance, Pacific Resources Partnership, a consortium of the Carpenters Union and building contractors, is staging a closed-door reception March 22 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel featuring U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye.
“For security reasons, this reception is by invitation only,” said an invitation emailed to legislators.
Kondo said he is aware of the event and is gathering information on whether state officials, including legislators, are permitted under the ethics code to accept the invitations.
Legislators have also received invitations to a “VIP preview night” tomorrow evening at the First Hawaiian International Auto Show.
The invitations, sent by Hawaii Auto Dealers Association executive David Rolf, also included two free $7 tickets for entry to the auto show.
The VIP Preview Night event is being organized by the auto dealers association and co-sponsored by the Honolulu Star Advertiser and Nissan Motor Corp.
The invitation from Rolf noted that the event has a public, educational value because it features displays on cars powered by “alternative fuels including electricity”
“A visit to the Cars and Energy display will help in providing some background on Hawaii’s abundant sources of renewable fuels,” Rolf’s cover letter said.
On the applicability of the ethics code, Rolf wrote, “”Our understanding (is) the Ethics Rules allows if the value is below $25. An educational purpose is served.”
Kondo said he had spoken with Rolf and advised him that under the ethics code, officials could accept the free invitations to the VIP night because of its education value, but could not accept the $7 tickets for entry to the car show on other nights.
Both the auto dealers and Pacific Resources Partnership sent free invitations to legislators for events earlier this year.
One was an annual PRP reception held Jan. 11 at the Oahu Country Club that featured “heavy pupus and refreshments.”
HADA staged a “Dealer Day” free lunch reception Jan 21 at the Capitol that featured a “catered plate lunch from Kakaako Kitchen.