Chad Blair: Lawmakers don’t seem interested in doing anything about corruption

Civil Beat’s 2022 Candidates Q&A has proven to be very popular with candidates and readers. It’s clear from our traffic data that they’re well consumed ahead of the Aug. 13 primary, likely helping voters make their decisions.

Because of all the political corruption cases of recent times – from the Kealoha saga which began several years ago but is continuing to the Cullen-English corruption cases this spring – the editors of Civil Beat have granted a particular attention to questions on ethics reform and open governance. That’s why we asked about lobbying, Sunshine and Open Records laws, fundraising, transparency and accountability.

The answers vary widely, but some trends are emerging — including a disappointing trend from incumbent lawmakers who have largely refused to be specific about what the legislature should do.

Instead, many of the responses were similar to those of House Speaker Scott Saiki, who said in his questionnaire: “Following the charges of legislative corruption, I have asked the House to create an independent commission to evaluate and recommend improvements to our ethics laws.

Saiki concluded the Q&A section on reform with this sentence: “The House has asked the Foley Commission to assess these topics and I await their final recommendations.”

Saiki deserves credit for forming the commission and completing the Q&A — something Senate Speaker Ron Kouchi entirely ignored.

But it looks like a dodge, a dodge that a number of other lawmakers have also taken.

Senator Gil Keith-Agaran, for example: “I will take a look at what the House committee suggests and any recommendations from my own community.

Opening day of the 2022 legislature with plastic dividers during an increase in Covid-19 cases statewide.  January 19, 2022.
Many legislative incumbents are up for re-election. Will they be inclined to enact a real ethics reform? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

What I was hoping to see more of are comments on the findings and recommendations of the commission already considering, as its final report is not due until December 1 – well after the general election. Among them are proposals to expand conflict of interest provisions, require disclosure of individuals or groups requesting “on demand” bills, and increase penalties and investigative tools for law enforcement. order in order to specifically combat fraud and public corruption.

It is the winners of the legislative races, after all, who will decide what to do with the commission’s report – if anything.

Many legislators also praised the passage of Senate Bill 555 prohibit fundraising during the session.

“It was passed by the Legislative Assembly because I believe no fundraising should take place while we vote on bills,” Rep. John Mizuno said.

The problem with SB 555 is that it doesn’t actually prohibit receiving funds during the session – the same time frame in which special interests try to influence the outcome of legislation.

That said, I give Senator Karl Rhoads props for at least offering a rationale for the practice:

As an incumbent, prohibiting fundraising during the legislative session would be to my advantage. Challengers typically start an election year with nothing in the bank. In contrast, I had $110,453.96 on December 31. Banning fundraising from January to May would virtually ensure incumbent victories. The ballots arrive at the end of July. That leaves 10 weeks between the end of the regular session of the Legislative Assembly and the time people begin to vote. It would be very difficult to raise the kind of money you need to win in this window.

Point taken. But as my colleague Blaze Lovell recently pointed out, the incumbents of Leg accepted half a million dollars in campaign money during the 2022 session, even when there were calls to end the practice.

Additionally, the big donations made by the likes of federal contractor Martin Kao, local businessman Dennis Mitsunaga and others have rightly become election fodder in 2022. And former Rep. Ty Cullen and former state senator J. Kalani English were not ordinary lawmakers, but the deputy chairman of the House Finance Committee and the Senate Majority Leader, respectively.

That’s why I find this comment from legislative candidate Gary Gill so apt: “Kalani English and Ty Cullen taking bribes makes me really angry. This breach of public trust is causing enormous damage to our democracy, especially in these times of public cynicism.

Gill, a former Honolulu City Council member, says he still believes the “overwhelming majority” of elected officials “honestly pursue the public interest as best they can.”

I certainly hope so, but I’m getting a lot more cynical these days. And that it might be more widespread comes to mind when I read a comment like this from House candidate Nick Nikhilananda: “It was my state senator, whom I’ve known for 30 years, who pleaded guilty of accepting a bribe; so it hits pretty close to home. I have the feeling that there are others and other actions that rise to a level bordering on corruption.

pay and play

Hawaii’s entrenched pay culture was recently on display at a fundraiser in June organized by an energy lobbyist who netted tens of thousands of dollars for two Hawaiian lawmakers responsible for passing a important legislation for the lobbyist.

Speaking of these two senators, I enjoyed this comment from Glenn Wakai: “If the public really wants money out of politics, let’s go the route of publicly sponsored elections. In this way, all, holders and challengers, will have the same amount of fuel on the starting line. Will the public then complain that their tax dollars are used to elect someone they don’t like? »

The other senator, Donovan Dela Cruz, rightly noted that the leg added new positions within the Attorney General’s Department to enforce government corruption and white-collar crime, and that lawmakers undergo regular training. in matters of ethics “so as not to violate the laws and rules of ethics. ”

Senate Hawaii Capitol Closing Day Sine Die
The state House of Representatives formed the Foley Commission to consider revising standards of conduct. But will the state senate give serious consideration to his recommendations? Blaze Lovell/CivilBeat/2022

But he also declined to say whether he would open the conference committee period — the same period in which Dela Cruz successfully pushed through that same energy bill with little public awareness.

“The Legislature has put in place numerous measures to ensure transparency and accessibility,” he wrote. “All briefings, committee hearings, conference panels and floor sessions offer options for in-person or virtual attendance.”

On that last point – virtual attendance – many lawmakers explained that it was Covid-19 that led the Legislative Assembly to move all hearings online.

“I love that technology has enabled virtual witnessing, which makes it easier for the elderly, working people and those from nearby islands to testify,” Rep. Scot Matayoshi wrote.

Me too, but I wish it didn’t take a pandemic for this to happen. And what remains firmly behind closed doors are the private meetings between lawmakers. This is because the leg has exempted itself from the Sunshine Law.

On the positive side, many lawmakers and their challengers seem receptive to lobbying reforms such as much greater financial and gifting disclosures, which is also on the committee’s radar.

Kudos also to Rep. Angus McKelvey, who wrote, “We need to get out of the square building and consider having committees conduct hearings and make decisions on actual bills in different public places in Hawaii so we can better connect the people to the essential functioning of the legislature during the session.

And I’ve welcomed the sometimes very candid comments from some people, like this one from State Senator Laura Acasio — even though I personally don’t favor term limits:

The most compelling argument I can make for term limits is that they act as a flushing mechanism for the factionalism and grudges that are building up in our political system to the detriment of our entire state. Although I entered politics well aware of the many ways in which the process can be corrupted, nothing prepared me for the number of times I heard that a bill would not pass or that a request for Funding wouldn’t be approved just because someone didn’t like someone else. Each time I was forced to accept this, I felt like a punch. This occurs regardless of the quality of the bill or the amount of appropriations needed; it is between representatives and senators elected to serve the same communities.

Hmm. I might just be persuaded to change my mind about term limits.

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