By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Critics of a change to the state’s ethics code giving lawmakers broader exemptions have found an unusual advocate — a legislator who may have benefited from it.
State Sen. Josh Green said he will seek to reverse the exemptions next session after inadvertently bringing the issue into the spotlight when he got involved in a billing dispute between the city of Honolulu and a health care company.
Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, sent correspondence on his legislative letterhead on Aug. 9 urging the city to resolve the dispute. While he didn’t specifically take the side of the company, Automated HealthCare Solutions, he labeled the city’s settlement as unreasonable and urged a resolution by Aug. 24, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
Typically, that action would have been seen as a potential violation of the state’s ethics code that bars state employees, including lawmakers, from using their positions to benefit, or gain favors, for others, said Les Kondo, state ethics commission executive director.
But since the Legislature last session broadened the exemptions for lawmakers to apply to all actions taken as a legislator — providing them with a large loophole with the fair treatment provision — there was no potential violation, Kondo said.
“In the past, before the amendment, if we have a situation where a legislator may be doing something in abuse of their position, the ethics commission would have looked at it,” he said.
“At this point, there was nothing for us to look at in terms of if there’s a violation of the state’s ethics code.”
Previously, lawmakers were only exempt from the fair treatment provision while performing their “legislative functions,” which Kondo said refers to duties such as drafting legislation or serving on committees. It didn’t extend to constituent services, such as Green’s letter.
For his part, Green said he wasn’t trying to take Automated HealthCare’s side and simply wanted a resolution to the billing dispute before it impacted patients.
“My only intent was to make sure patients have access to health care, especially in the case of injured workers,” he said.
“If my letter was strongly worded it wasn’t meant to punish the city,” Green later added. “It was really meant to say this is a real issue for health care providers in the state.”
Green equated the letter to other non-legislative actions he takes.
“As the only physician in the legislature, I receive dozens of requests every week to help people get access to health care, this includes working on reimbursements to keep a doctor’s office open, trying to get someone medications for their child’s asthma, getting a patient a new wheelchair through DHS (Department of Human Services) if theirs is breaking down or finding a grant to help a doctor to come practice in a place like Ka‘u,” he said.
“The list is like this every week, and it is my job as a doctor and the Health (Committee) chair to try and help.”
Green also said he wasn’t aware of the change to the ethics code, tucked into a bill allowing ethics exemptions for people who serve on legislative task forces.
But the letter nonetheless has highlighted the loophole, which Kondo said has much larger implications.
“They can in essence misuse their positions to benefit someone else,” he said. “Or give someone else an unwarranted privilege.”
Green said he has spoken with Kondo about the issue, and has since offered to introduce legislation to undo the changes.
“I take to heart Mr. Kondo’s concerns and I agree no one should ever get special treatment, so I am going to be submitting legislation to make sure these concerns are addressed specifically,” he said.
Green said he has also donated a $2,000 campaign donation Automated HealthCare gave him after he wrote the letter to Aloha Medical Mission and Kona Hospital Foundation.
He said the donation was not solicited, and he has no personal or professional connections to the company.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.