Ethics bills die in committee


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

As it turns out, a mistake may be easier for the state Legislature to make than to fix.

Lawmakers last year granted themselves broad exemptions from the state ethics code in a move that was framed as an accident, an oversight made during the sometimes messy process of bill writing.

But this year, efforts to fix it have so far proved fruitless.

Bills introduced in the House and Senate that would have cut back the exemption, which the head of the state’s Ethics Commission says prevents the fair treatment provision of the code from applying to any action legislators take, well, as legislators, died in their first committees without getting a hearing.

Sen. Josh Green, who introduced one of the bills, said he was disappointed by the lack of attention the issue received and was unsure why the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor didn’t consider it.

Sen. Clayton Hee, who chairs the committee, didn’t return a request for comment.

Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, said he plans to pursue the legislation again next year if it doesn’t get resurrected by being attached to another bill this session.

“I believe there should be no loopholes, and I’ll keep submitting that legislation and pressing my colleagues to hear the bill year in and year out,” he said.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, was a co-sponsor.

The broadened exemption was made in a bill in which lawmakers also granted task force members exemptions from the ethics code.

The fair treatment provision says that legislators and employees shall not use their official positions to provide “unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts or treatment” for themselves or others.

It previously also stated that the section does not apply to actions taken in the exercise of legislative functions. The amendment last year changed that exemption to any action taken as a legislator, which Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo said has a broader interpretation.

“It significantly broadens the exemption from the fair treatment provision in the state ethics code for legislators,” he said.

“It went from an exemption that was limited … to now to essentially any act that a legislator takes in his or her legislator capacity.”

A bill that would have reversed the broadened exemption, as well as exemptions for task force members, also failed to receive a hearing in the House Committee on Judiciary.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, the committee chair, said the legislation wasn’t discussed primarily because the task force exemption had just been adopted last year and he wanted to give more time for its impacts to become clear. He also said he doesn’t believe the exemption for legislators was expanded much at all.

“If you read the beginning of the bill, it looks like the guts of the fair treatment provision are still there and still apply to legislators,” said Rhoads, D-Oahu.

“I viewed them as a task-force policy reversal bill.”

Kondo has said the broader exemption kept the Ethics Commission from considering charges against Green for getting involved in a billing dispute between a health care company and the city of Honolulu.

Green had sent correspondence on his legislative letterhead on Aug. 9 urging the city to resolve the dispute. He didn’t specifically take the side of the company, Automated HealthCare Solutions, but he labeled the city’s settlement as unreasonable and urged a timely resolution, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Kondo told the Tribune-Herald in November that Green’s letter could have been a potential violation of the fair treatment provision before the exemption was broadened.

Green, who denied any intentional wrongdoing, later donated a $2,000 campaign contribution he received from the company shortly after the letter was written to the Aloha Medical Mission and Kona Hospital Foundation.

Even though he may have benefited from it, Green said he introduced the legislation to reduce the scope of the ethics exemption after becoming aware of its impacts.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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