I spent several hours in the State Ethics Commision office last week browsing through their hard copies of files, most of which are available online but that are easier to review quickly on paper.
It got me thinking about what a con job is done on the public by the legislature and governor. In most cases, legislation to toughen ethics laws stalls out in the legislature, allowing the governor ample opportunity to point fingers at those responsible for their failures to protect the public. Of course, legislative powers are diffuse and the path to passage complex, so it’s hard to know exactly who is responsible for things putting the knife in things that don’t pass. And if something slips through the legislature, suddenly the governor will find something wrong with it and exercise her veto, all the while blaming lawmakers.
It’s enough to make you cynical.
For example, during the 2007 session the legislature voted to increase public scrutiny of the most powerful state boards and commissions, a key layer of government where the governor exerts control by wielding the power of appointment. The bill quickly became one of the first vetoed by Gov. Lingle.
House Bill 910, which was gutted in the Senate and replaced with the substance of a similar bill, SB 1957, requires members of ten specified boards and commissions to file public financial disclosure statements. Currently those members file confidential disclosures which are seen only by ethics commission staff, while all elected officials, as well as appointed department heads and their deputies, file public disclosures.
The following boards would now be required to file public financial disclosures under the terms of HB 910:
(8) The members of following boards and commissions:
(A) The board of agriculture;
(B) The Hawaii community development authority;
(C) The board of trustees of the employees’ retirement system;
(D) The Hawaiian homes commission;
(E) The board of land and natural resources;
(F) The land use commission;
(G) The public utilities commission;
(H) The board of directors of the research corporation of the University of Hawaii;
(I) The board of regents of the University of Hawaii; and
(J) The Hawaii tourism authority.”
The ethics commission submitted testimony strongly supporting both HB910 and SB1957. In the case of four boards (Board of Regents, land board, board of agriculture, and Hawaiian Homes Commission), the ethics commission points out that the boards actually run their respective departments and wield executive power. Here’s what the commission had to say in its testimony on HB 910, HD1, before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor:
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission believes that it is an anomaly for the board members who run these departments not to file public financial disclosure statements, in light of the fact that these boards are vested with the authority to run departments….
The major purpose of the disclosure law is to indicate any potential conflicts of interests. Another important purpose, however, is to show that no conflict in fact exists with respect to a particular board member, or state official or employee. THus, public financial disclosure statements go far in maintaining public confidence in public servants.
Gov. Lingle’s veto message reflects several misunderstandings of existing ethics rules as well as the requirements of the State Constitution, which the ethics commission discussed at some length in its testimony on SB1957.
For example, Lingle says the bill “attempts to improperly equate members of boards and commisisons who serve without compensation as if they were the same as paid State employees or elected officials.”
The general provisions of the state ethics law, Chapter 84 HRS, already make no distinction between appointed members of boards and commissions and paid employees. They are one and the same, at least as far as the application of the standards of conduct are concerned.
Here’s the definition of “employee” from Section 84-3:
“Employee” means any nominated, appointed, or elected officer or employee of the State, including members of boards, commissions, and committees, and employees under contract to the State or of the constitutional convention, but excluding legislators, delegates to the constitutional convention, justices and judges.
So there’s nothing “improper” about making that connection. It’s been the law for a long time.
Lingle further argues that the public already have “a reasonable opportunity” to raise conflict of interest concerns.
Perhaps, but the public lacks the information about the financial interests of board and commission members needed to evaluate the potential for conflicts, which renders those “reasonable opportunities” somewhat meaningless.
I really didn’t mean for this rant to go on for so long.
I’m going for a another cup of coffee, and perhaps I’ll start working on our Sunday egg white omelet. It is, after all, a holiday weekend.