By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Hawaii County lobbyist laws seem fairly straightforward: You must register as a lobbyist within five days of becoming a lobbyist. You must file a notice of termination within 10 days after ceasing lobbying. You must file a report summarizing gifts, entertainment and other expenses on July 31 and Jan. 31 of each year.
But a Stephens Media Hawaii analysis of records kept at the County Clerk’s Office found that only two of the county’s 34 registered lobbyists filed the required expenditure disclosure by the most recent deadline.
And an untold number of the lobbyists meeting with county officials on controversial issues such as zoning, land use and genetically modified organisms haven’t registered as lobbyists at all.
The county code defines a lobbyist as “any individual engaged for pay or other consideration who spends more than five hours in any month or $275 in any six-month period for the purpose of attempting to influence legislative or administrative action by communicating or urging others to communicate with public officials.”
That leaves out people who come before the County Council representing such diverse groups as the Sierra Club and the Hamakua Farm Bureau, whose member-lobbyists don’t get paid. It also excludes business owners lobbying on behalf of their own business, even if they are doing it to enhance the business’s bottom line.
And it excludes government employees or officials lobbying on behalf of their agencies.
State and county lobbyist and disclosure laws were imposed as a way to ensure public oversight over who attempts to influence public policy and for the public to see if elected officials and other decision-makers are being wined and dined by those seeking changes in policy.
Consultants representing clients before the council and administrative bodies must file. And, since 2006, the county ordinance also includes attorneys who appear on behalf of clients.
But most of Hawaii County’s most prominent attorneys don’t register as lobbyists, with some saying the law doesn’t apply to them.
The newspaper’s analysis counted the 34 lobbyists who had registered as of 2005 and hadn’t submitted letters indicating they had terminated lobbying relationships.
The two registered lobbyists who did submit their expenditure reports aren’t big spenders.
Sidney Fuke, a planner who shepherds many clients’ zoning applications through the system, is one of the two registered lobbyists who filed their semi-annual expenditure reports by the July 31 deadline.
The other was Faye Lincoln, who represents the Salt Lake City-based Avalon Health Care. Lincoln reported no lobbying or lobbying expenses for the period and Fuke reported five hours or less of lobbying and spending $24.75 on food and beverages.
“I might have lunch, but not dinner,” Fuke said. “I have dinner with my wife.”
The report is supposed to be filed whether there are expenses or not. Yet, 32 registered lobbyists, including former County Clerk Kenny Goodenow, land-use lobbyist William Brooks and Retail Merchants Association lobbyist Carol Pregill, had not filed by Friday, more than a month after the deadline.
Goodenow said he didn’t file a report because he’d requested in January 2012, that his lobbyist registration be withdrawn. He did that, he said, because he determined after researching the issue that lawyers are exempt.
“It would not be appropriate for a lawyer to register as a lobbyist for their client,” Goodenow said. “I’m their direct agent. It’s not really a lobbying situation. In essence, a lawyer is an extension of the client, which comes with legal and ethical responsibilities.”
Other well-known lobbyists haven’t registered with the county at all.
Alan Takemoto, who testified at a July 2 council Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee hearing opposing a bill limiting GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, has not registered as a lobbyist with the county. He did not respond to two detailed voicemails and an email inquiry Thursday and Friday.
Takemoto is registered with the state as a Monsanto lobbyist in order to lobby the state Legislature. State Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo said the state lobbying list covers only state-level lobbying. Counties, he said, generally adopt their own ordinances.
Steve Lim, Diana Van De Car and Thomas Yeh, Hilo attorneys who frequently represent clients on zoning and land-use issues, also aren’t registered. Lim said Friday that his staff began researching the issue after a telephone call from the newspaper.
“I’m not sure if it’s applicable,” Lim said. “It’s something we’re checking.”
Lim declined to elaborate on what might make him exempt from lobbying laws.
Violating lobbyist laws could result in being charged with a misdemeanor. But there is no apparent oversight or enforcement of lobbyist registration and disclosure laws.
The Board of Ethics is empowered under the law to render advisory opinions on any individual’s compliance with the law. But that’s done only after someone files a complaint, a spokeswoman said. Any person who subsequently “conforms their conduct to an advisory opinion of the board” will not be subject to penalties.
Fuke said he sees the advantage of a registration and reporting system to increase government transparency. The public, he said, has a better ability to track who is speaking for whom, and also to compare a lobbyist’s expenditure report with gift reports of an elected official.
“It’s a check and balance,” he said.
But, other than possibly by the public, there is very little checking of who registers as a lobbyist and who reports spending. The Clerk’s Office collects the reports, but it doesn’t compare who is registered with who files expenditure reports.
County Council members’ gift reports, on the other hand, are maintained by the Board of Ethics and not the Clerk’s Office at all. The councilors, along with key administrative officials, are required to report gifts valued singly or in aggregate of over $100. No such gifts were reported by council members this year.
While the county ethics code regulating lobbying seems straightforward, the paper-based system is cumbersome and difficult for elected officials and the public to track. There is no annual registration requirement; lobbyists register once for each client and then send in a letter when that relationship ends.
The Clerk’s Office keeps a ledger book with separate sheets for lobbyists added to and subtracted from the list. The public can look at the book by requesting it at the Hilo office.
Council members interviewed Friday generally didn’t know who among those visiting their offices or contacting them on issues are registered lobbyists and who aren’t.
Council Chairman J Yoshimoto said most of his recent contacts have been owners of companies, especially those in the waste management sector. He said he’s not aware of recent calls or visits from lobbyists.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille said she’s often unsure if individuals calling her office for appointments are paid lobbyists or simply constituents who are seeking assistance. She’s looking at improving the ordinance to at least require annual registration.
“If you’re a lobbyist, we should be able to look it up,” said Wille. “We need to make it so the public knows.”
Ka‘u/South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford said she doesn’t need to know if the person is a registered lobbyist or not. She’s going to scrutinize the issue itself, especially in the case of rezonings.
“It’s the merits of that particular case. It’s the paperwork that’s submitted and what my constituents say,” Ford said. “I don’t care what a lobbyist says; I don’t care what a developer says.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.