Category Archives: Ethics

Trump budget to signal huge retreat from world affairs

Foreign Policy magazine is reporting that the Trump administration is going to propose slashing more than half of what the U.S. spends annually for United Nations’ programs (“White House Seeks to Cut Billions in Funding for United Nations“).

And it’s not just the U.N. facing big cuts, but funding for other types of foreign assistance and even the State Department itself.

FP says the moves signal “an unprecedented retreat by President Donald Trump’s administration from international operations that keep the peace, provide vaccines for children, monitor rogue nuclear weapons programs, and promote peace talks from Syria to Yemen, according to three sources.”

And what will this mean?

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said cuts of this magnitude would create “chaos.”

This is a single-minded selfishness of a sick billionaire’s view of the world that, if actuallly pursued, is going to come back to bite us right you-know-where.

Even without dealing with what this says about the lack of simple human empathy or caring about others, the president’s people seem blissfully unaware that the U.S. is less than 5% of the world’s population, and chaos elsewhere in the world can’t be contained or made to work in our favor.

FP cites observers who predict that Congress will not agree to cuts of this magnitude and that this part of the president’s budget, at least, is unlikely to pass.

I’m not sure that’s really comforting…

Interesting look at the ABA evaluation of federal judicial nominees

An article in the Wall Street Journal last week examines the procedures used by the American Bar Association to review and rate the qualifications of those nominated to serve as federal judges, from federal district court judges up to members of the Supreme Court (“The Data That Goes Into Judging Judges/In some cases, hundreds of confidential interviews are conducted to assess candidates’ credentials“).

The ABA has a 15-member committee with members–all lawyers–serving staggered terms. The committee works independent of the ABA’s hierarchy when doing their assessments.

Among those who may be interviewed, according to a spokesman for the ABA, are federal, state and administrative judges before whom the nominee has appeared; lawyers who have been co-counsel or opposing counsel in cases handled by the candidate; and, if the candidate is a former or sitting judge, other judges who have served with the nominee.

Interviews also may be conducted with law school professors and deans; legal services and public interest lawyers; representatives of professional legal organizations; and community leaders and others who have information concerning the nominee’s professional qualifications.

In addition, two reading groups, one with law professors, the other with ?practitioners, examine the nominee’s legal writings for quality, clarity, analytical ability and knowledge of law.

The committee rates nominees it considers to be preeminent members of the profession with outstanding legal ability and exceptional experience as well qualified. It rates those it considers fully equipped to serve as qualified. And those who fall short in one or more areas as not qualified.

Since 1999, the group has rated 1,074 nominees, concluding that nine weren’t qualified, 369 were qualified and 696 were well qualified.

That’s a very robust process, for sure.

I’ll have to go looking for a description of the Hawaii Bar Association’s evaluation process.

Meanwhile, there’s also a possible comparison to the Hawaii’s Judicial Selection Commission, with its nine members. No more than four are lawyers. Two members each are appointed by the Governor, the Hawaii Bar Association, the Senate President, and the House Speaker. The Chief Justice appoints a single member.

The rules of the commission are long on procedures and short on substance. Here’s the brief section regarding information gathering on judicial nominees.

Rule 9. INTERVIEWS AND INVESTIGATIONS

The commission may interview applicants and petitioners and conduct investigations into their backgrounds and qualifications. The chairperson may designate one or more commissioners to interview and investigate applicants and petitioners. Using the commission’s form of application or petition or as the case may be, as a starting point, the designees may obtain as much information on the applicant or petitioner as possible from available sources. The commission may retain such services as it deems necessary and appropriate to conduct investigations.

Exactly what does that translate to in terms of evaluating a nominees abilities? We don’t know, because the process is secret.

Honolulu Ethics Commission finds no conflicts in legal campaign support from special interests

Back in September 2015, I examined assertions being made by Kioni Dudley that ethics laws required Honolulu City Council members who received significant contributions from development interests, or who benefited from the independent activities of Super Pacs supporting the development of Hoopili, to recuse themselves from decisions regarding the development, which Dudley has strongly opposed. He suggested that the votes could be voided as a result of their failure to recuse themselves.

At the time, I described his view as an interesting theory, but one that was not supported by a clear reading of the law. Essentially, the city ethics provisions explicitly allows council members to solicit and accept legal campaign contributions. And as to the independent activities of Super Pacs, candidates could not be required to disclose those because, by definition, any such expenditures are independent of the candidates.

Yesterday the Honolulu Ethics Commission issued two opinions which generally agreed with my assessment of the two issues raised.

Advisory Opinion 2017-1 found that independent expenditures by Super Pacs do not create a conflict of interest for council members who benefit from their activities because “they are made without the coordination of a candidate or a candidate’s campaign and are therefore too attenuated.”

The opinion quotes from a federal court decision in the case of Yamada v. Kuramoto.

Although the government might still limit contributions made directly to candidates or parties, “the need for contribution limitations to combat corruption or the appearance thereof tends to decrease as the link between the candidate and the regulated entity becomes more attenuated.” If the organization receiving contributions truly engages in only independent expenditures, the link is not only attenuated—it is broken. An anti-corruption or appearance of corruption rationale is nonexistent.

Advisory Opinion 2017-2 addresses the issue whether a candidate who receives 40% or more of their campaign contributions from a special interest group has a conflict of interest as a result of those contributions.

The commission found that the matter is beyond their jurisdiction “because campaign contributions, regardless of amount, are specifically excluded from said section.” That’s the same thing I pointed out back in my 2015 post.

Furthermore, the opinion properly notes that the Campaign Spending Commission has “primary and exclusive jurisdiction over campaign issues,” and so the campaign laws preempt the kinds of issues Dudley has raised.

Making sense of what was spent lobbying the legislature last year

In my Civil Beat column last week, I tried to do an overview of lobbying expenditures reported to the State Ethics Commission during 2016 (“Ian Lind: Tightening The Rules For Lobbyists/Lobbyists spent millions trying to influence lawmakers last year“).

I reported more than $5.3 million had been spent on legislative lobbying during the year, which seems like a substantial number. In the end, though, that total dropped to a bit under $5.3 million as a result of errors in the reports that were filed.

The column also reviews proposals from the ethics commission for clarifying reporting requirements in an attempt to close several loopholes that have been exploited by some to sidestep the disclosure requirements.

I would suggest that you at least skim the column, then return here for an explanation of what went into writing it and the problems I ran into.

First, I downloaded the latest version of the database of reported expenditures by organizations that retain lobbyists or are otherwise required to disclose their costs for influencing legislation, and then selected a subset containing all the reports for each of three reporting periods during 2016. These reports cover the periods January 1-February 28, March 1-April 30, and May 1-December 31. The legislature is in session during most of the first two periods.

When these are put online, the commission includes the amount reported for fees paid to lobbyists, and for the total of all categories of spending, in addition to the organization name, date filed, and other details. Also included is a link to the available pdf of the form.

During an initial pass examining the data, I noticed that several organizations submitted amended reports during the year. I went through each of those, and tried to make sense of the “amendments.” In some cases, the amendments appeared to simply be duplicates of the originals. In a few other cases, they reported new and presumably updated figures.

In one case–Outrigger Hotels–there were several amended disclosure forms filed, each containing the same numbers. On its face, it appeared Outrigger ranked #2 of all the organizations in spending, but several things stood out as warning flags that this might have been the result of errors. While I was working on my column, I tried reaching Max Sword, Outrigger’s in-house lobbyist. But Sword is also the current chair of the Honolulu Police Commission, which was meeting that same day, and I wasn’t able to reach him until the following day.

It turned out, according to Sword, that errors were made in the online process of filing these reports, resulting in errors. But although I suspected there were errors, at least in the case of Outrigger, I wasn’t able to confirm them prior to publication.

In any case, my next step was to add up the amounts reported in each of the three periods for each organization, and produced a list of the total amount spent by each group during 2016. Then I sorted these in descending order to give a quick list of the top spending lobbying groups.

I’m pretty sure that this is still a relatively good assessment of the overall situation. However, my “final” numbers changed when I made the correction for Outrigger, dropping it from #2 to #8 in the ranking.

Here’s a link to the full list of organizations and what they reported spending on lobbying at the legislature last year.

If you spot instances that deserve more attention, please leave a comment below. Thanks.