The State Ethics Commission’s recent public disclosure of settlements of ethics charges lodged against the Hawaii Family Forum and Hawaii Catholic Conference appear to be part of a broader move by the commission to provide more transparency.
The two organizations agreed to pay a total of $3,000 to settle their cases. They also agreed that information about the charges and their resolution could be made public.
The commission’s press releases about these settlements got some media attention, but published accounts didn’t note the departure from the commission’s longstanding policy of confidentiality regarding processing of complaints.
A third public resolution followed, this one involving apparently violations of the state ethics code by Mililani High School tennis coach, May Ann Beamer.
In this case, the commission said the coach appears to have violated the ethics law by providing private tennis lessons for pay to five members of the school’s tennis team while, at the same time, having responsibility for selecting members of the tennis teams, designating the “line-up” of team members, and other regular coaching duties.
The commission’s charge alleged a number of violations of the “fair treatment” provision of the law, which provides, in part:
§84-13 Fair treatment. No legislator or employee shall use or attempt to use the legislator’s or employee’s official position to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts, or treatment, for oneself or others; including but not limited to the following:
… (4) Soliciting, selling, or otherwise engaging in a substantial financial transaction with a subordinate or a person or business whom the legislator or employee inspects or supervises in the legislator’s or employee’s official capacity.
Here’s the commission’s reasoning as spelled out in the public resolution:
The Commission has long held that the State Ethics Code prohibits teachers
from privately teaching or tutoring their current students or prospective students for pay. Students have a dependent relationship with teachers and do not share equal bargaining power with teachers. HRS section 84-13(4) bars teachers from engaging in substantial financial transactions with anyone supervised by them, including their students, as well as the parents of their students. HRS section 84-13(4) similarly prohibits a coach from offering or providing private lessons, for pay, to members of the school’s team who are supervised by the coach. The same dependent relationship and unequal bargaining power that exists between students and teachers also exists between school athletic team members and coaches. A coach has the power to select the members of a school’s team; a coach holds practices for and provides instruction and discipline to team members; a coach determines the level of participation or “playing time” for team members; and a coach acts as a key reference for players who seek to continue their athletic careers beyond high school. In this situation of unequal bargaining power, a team member whose coach offers to provide private lessons for pay may perceive the offer to be one that cannot be refused. Due to the dependent nature of the relationship, HRS section 84-13(4) prohibits coaches from providing private lessons for pay to team members.
The commission states that, if the allegations are true, it could reasonably find the law had been violated. To reach a final finding, however, would require a long, complicated, expensive, and still confidential investigation and formal administrative hearing.
It seems the commission is now leveraging its willingness to resolve cases short of formal charge proceedings in order to obtain the agreement of alleged violators to public disclosure of their cases. In most cases, that sounds like a win-win approach.