Hawaii Standards Commission Set to Strengthen Ethics Rules for Lawmakers and Lobbyists

Big changes could be on the way for Hawaii lawmakers and lobbyists.

A commission to improve government standards wants the Legislative Assembly to publish records of legislative indemnities online, require lawmakers to disclose any business relationships with lobbyists and other organizations trying to influence the government, and make it harder for legislators to vote on bills when they may pose a conflict of interest.

The Commission for Improving Standards of Conduct put forward these and several other proposals aimed at lobbyists on Wednesday. These bills would require annual ethics training for lobbyists, force them to disclose a list of bill numbers they try to influence, and ban them from giving gifts to lawmakers and government employees.

But the question remains how far lawmakers will be willing to go to impose more rules on themselves. Lawmakers will pick up the proposals from January along with others the commission has already passed on, which focused on election and campaign spending laws.

The Commission for Improving Standards of Conduct is proposing new rules for state lawmakers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

House Speaker Scott Saiki formed the Standards Committee earlier this year after two former lawmakers were accused of taking bribes to influence legislation. Former Senator J. Kalani English is serving a three-year prison sentence in Oregon for his role in the corruption scheme.

Former Rep. Ty Cullen was due to be sentenced in October, but that hearing has been rescheduled for Jan. 19, the day after the Legislative Assembly is scheduled to convene its 2023 session. It’s not yet clear how many years Cullen could spend in prison.

The actions of these lawmakers spurred a movement to increase transparency in government, and in particular the Legislative Assembly.

“The system on which the legislature currently operates is grossly inefficient and ineffective in meeting the needs of the people,” former state senator and Hilo businessman Russell Ruderman said during the committee meeting.

He called for more attention to be paid to the outside business interests of legislators. Some work for law firms that represent clients lobbying state and county governments. Others work for consultants who can get government work or for companies that could profit from legislative action.

The commission sought to address this issue with a bill that would require lawmakers to make additional public disclosures on annual financial reports that would reveal any business or financial interests with companies lobbying the Legislative Assembly.

“It’s bold,” said state ethics commission director Robert Harris. “It would have quite wide applications.”

Harris said that could require extensive disclosures for lawmakers employed by law firms. He acknowledged during the meeting that the proposal could be politically difficult to move forward and could lead to legal challenges.

The committee also wants more transparency from lobbyists and the companies they represent. Currently, these organizations’ periodic reports only require disclosure of a company’s lobbying expenditures and on which general topics.

A new proposal from the commission would require lobbyists to include in their forms information about the bills they plan to lobby for as well as a list of bills they helped draft. Nikos Leverenz, one of the commissioners, also suggested that these new disclosures should include information regarding budget items that an organization might lobby.

He gave an example of his organization, the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, testifying against budget provisions for a new prison in Halawa.

Commissioners decided to take a few more weeks to flesh out details of proposals for additional funds for county ethics commissions and another calling for a “citizen’s bill of rights,” which included provisions on access to legislative bills, dossiers and other proposals to be made. the committee’s decision-making process more transparent.

The commission will meet again in November to consider other proposals, including those from county prosecutors to strengthen Hawaii’s criminal code. The work of the commission must be completed in December to make proposals for the next legislature.

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