Category Archives: Ethics

Candidate disclosures offer rare glimpse at finances

Here’s a pot of data that often gets overlooked.

I’m talking about the financial disclosures filed by candidates for state offices, including House, Senate, and Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

These aren’t as useful for those incumbents running for reelection, since their regular annual disclosures include more information.

However, the candidate disclosures are very useful for learning more about the challengers, a list which usually includes at least a few people of interest because of their roles in community groups, business, or public affairs.

In many cases, the candidate disclosure provide the only public accounting of their financial interests and business ties.

Okay, that may sound a lot like snooping. But to a reporter, or a citizen activist, information can be powerful, whether immediately or sometime in the future.

The disclosure process is administered by the State Ethics Commission, which recently published a list of candidates who have filed this year. It’s a good place to start.

Browse the list, and if you see a name of interest to you, then check the candidate disclosure database, click on the link for the person’s form, and check it out. You can save the form as a pdf for future reference.

Ethics Commission looks at free passes to World Conservation Congress

The State Ethics Commission issued a letter this week containing “guidance on acceptance of passes to the World Conservation Congress.”

The letter is posted on the commission’s website.

When I saw the link, I wondered whether this would be another strict and literal interpretation of the ethics code that would question or put limits on the acceptance of free passes.

It seems that legislators, along with certain state officials and employees, have been offered various passes to attend part or all of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) World Conservation Congress (“WCC”) events during the first part of September. The passes range from 1-day passes, to passes valid for the entire 10 day event.

Those being offered the ten day passes, valued at $900, include “the Senate president; the chairs of the Senate committees on Tourism and International Affairs, and Water, Land, and Agriculture; the House speaker; and the chairs of the House committees on Tourism, and Water and Land.”

I expected, based on guidance on other matters over the past few years, that the analysis would then review the gift laws and their application to such affairs, looking for potential questions that might be raised.

Instead, the commission staff disposed of the issue in a simple paragraph.

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission recognizes the importance to the State in hosting the WCC. The Commission views the attendance by the legislators and state officials and employees described above as beneficial to the interests of the State. The Commission notes that the WCC appears to be a joint project between the State of Hawaii and the IUCN and, as such, the State has recognized that its interests are served by promoting the WCC. Consequently, the Commission does not believe that the acceptance of the passes as described above is prohibited by the State Ethics Code, Hawaii Revised Statutes chapter 84.

I found this refreshing. No need to delve into the specific situation of the positions of each of those receiving passes and questioning whether or not the “gift” would be appropriate. No limiting their participation to the specific parts of the program most relevant to their position or job. Simply a recognition that the conference as a whole benefits the state and its officials and employees as well.

It’s too early to say whether this could signal that the commission will be approaching more issues in this manner, but we can hope.

State high court rejects ethics charges against Hilo charter school administrator

My weekly column over at Civil Beat today looks at a recent Hawaii Supreme Court case which overturned a major ruling by the State Ethics Commission (“Ian Lind: Ethics Commission Takes A Licking“).

It was the second court ruling overturning a commission action in just a month.

Remember that the CB paywall recently came down, so you’ll have easy access to the column.

The July 19 ruling by the Supreme Court shredded what had been one of the commission’s most extensive and significant enforcement actions in decades.

William Eric Boyd, an assistant administrator at the Connections New Century Public Charter School in Hilo, had been charged with violating the state ethics code by approving or processing purchases of supplies, equipment and school lunches from two companies controlled by Boyd and his wife.

In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that Boyd had actually followed all of the charter school’s policies and procedures, and faced the ethics charges despite apparently having done everything according to the rules.

What didn’t make it into the CB column is that there was no evidence that Boyd was anything other than the lowest bidder, providing needed products and services to the school at the lowest cost.

For example, Hilo attorney Ted Hong, who represented Boyd in the appeal, told me in a telephone interview that products ordered through through the Boyd’s Amway distributorship were sold to the school at their wholesale cost. And the court decision noted that meals for high school students purchased from Boyd’s wife cost just $3 each.

You’ll have to read the CB column to find out just why the court ruled against the ethics commission and ordered that all ethics charges against Boyd be dropped.

Court rulings prompt lots of ethics questions

Now that Civil Beat has knocked down its paywall, I’ll point you over there today to CB for my weekly column (“Ian Lind: Ominous Court Rulings For The State Ethics Commission“).

I started out just trying to digest the court ruling that overturned the State Ethics Commission’s “guidelines” prohibiting traditionally organized educational trips for public school students because it believes the free travel offered to teacher-chaperones is a prohibited “gift” under the state ethics law.

I’ve tried to explain a bit of the background in the column, so do head over to Civil Beat and give it a read.

Thinking about it some more, I’ve come around to the opinion that the commission has overreached in its to make it easier for people to comply with the ethics code by spelling out more “bright lines” between allowed and prohibited acts.

But this has involved manufacturing bright line boundaries for a statute where there is little in the way of clear Black and White, and much more a subjective set of grays.

It seems to me that in the past, the commission’s advice on educational travel might have been nuanced and somewhat “wishy-washy”, and would have been something like this.

They might have explained that the gift provision of the law prohibits gifts intended to influence or reward state officials or employees for their official actions. And the “fair treatment” provision prohibited state officials or employees from using their official position to reap unwarranted rewards.

Then the commission might have reviewed its decisions in past specific cases. For example, they might have pointed to a rare circumstance in which a teacher’s family owned a travel agency, and benefited unfairly when school trips were routed via the family company. Or perhaps they would have referenced a past case in which parents complained that a teacher pressured students to sign up for the trip so that another free trip would be available for a favored teacher.

And the commission might then have warned teachers to be careful to avoid even appearing to put pressure on students and their parents, and to stay clear of any business involvement in the travel arrangements beyond the flights and hotels received in exchange for organizing and chaperoning. And the commission would have advised anyone with questions or concerns to contact the commission for further guidance.

Instead, the commission tried to reduce the gift and fair treatment provisions to a simple “no free travel under these circumstances” rule written into their guidelines.

Now a circuit court judge had overturned the travel guidelines and ordering the commission to go through rule making if it wants to come up with a bright line solution.

My column notes that this forced reconsideration is likely to involve more than school travel, as the same gift provisions have been relied on to prohibit legislators from receiving complimentary tickets to attend community or nonprofit events with a face value of more than $25. Legislators unhappy about the commission’s restrictions on them are likely to be more than happy to piggyback their grievances on top of the teachers’ arguments.

And then there’s the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. It’s like a “Citizens United” decision in the area of public ethics and corruption.

Check the column for my initial thoughts. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the court’s decision.

A teaser…from the blog, Ethos:

“We in government ethics talk all the time about officials not even giving the appearance of a conflict of interest. As in most human endeavors, we find that noble principles are best supported by a few punitive laws or rules for those who do not “see the light.” Over two centuries, Federal conflict-of-interest laws and ethics rules have punished appearances of corruption because of the overarching need in a government based on popular sovereignty for the citizenry to trust in the integrity of its governing officials. Sadly, the Court has said that appearances/ethics are in the eye of the beholder.

Surprised by an SPJ Award

When I saw a Facebook post by another journalist commenting on awards from the Society of Professional Journalists annual contest, I went looking for the results posted on the SPJ Hawaii website. And I was surprised to see this:

2015 Excellence in Journalism Awards
June 24, 2016
Manoa Grand Ballroom

The 2015 Excellence in Journalism contest was judged, for the most part, by the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, with the exception of the Overall Magazine Layout, which was judged by Star-Advertiser managing editors Betty Shimabuuro and Mike Rovner.

All Media A101 Column Writing or Blog/News

First Place: Ian Lind “Ian Lind” Civil Beat Category Comment: “The winning entries all share the commonality of readability, and interesting insights into the history and culture of Hawaii, it’s people and its politics.”

Finalist: Ben Lowenthal “The State of Aloha” Maui News

Finalist: Neal Milner “Neal Milner” Civil Beat

After digesting the news, aided by a glass of wine or two, I checked in with Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler and got a list of my columns that were submitted.

It’s a pretty good selection, I have to say.

So here they are, the winning columns. And remember that the paywall has come down, so they are free for the reading.

Ian Lind: War Crimes on Kauai?
Since when did collecting taxes become pillaging and a war crime?

Ian Lind: Will Ruling In Council Case Derail Honolulu Ethics Enforcement?
The city Ethics Commission has released few details about why it dismissed charges against current and former council members, but the decisions could set dangerous precedents.

Ian Lind: Has UH Adequately Addressed Cancer Center’s Sticky Issues?
Former director Michele Carbone was often an expert defense witness in asbestos cases and sought UH grants from a frequently sued company. Conflict of interest?

Ian Lind: Dear Joe, If You’re Concerned About Ethics Problems Look in the Mirror
The Hawaii House Speaker is off-target in his criticism of the Ethics Commission for doing its job.

Ian Lind: Kahoolawe 40 Years Later
Protests over using the island as a military bombing range galvanized the modern Hawaiian movement.