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Senate committee passes ban on fundraisers during legislative session in light of bribery scandal

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HONOLULU — The Hawaiʻi Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would ban lawmaker fundraisers during the legislative session, one of several measures aimed at addressing corruption after two former legislators pleaded guilty in connection with a bribery scandal.

The committee unanimously approved the bill, which prohibits legislators or their representatives from holding fundraisers during a regular or special legislative session. The measure now goes before the full Senate for further consideration.

More than 80 individuals and organizations submitted testimony supporting the bill. Some urged lawmakers to go further and prohibit soliciting or accepting donations during the session.

Gary Hooser, a former state senator, said allowing solicitation would permit committee chairs and others to ask people affected by legislation to give them money.

“It's like extortion, even if it's not intended,” Hooser told the committee.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, the committee's chairperson, said prohibiting all donations could give lawmakers little time to raise money during an election year when lawmakers face a primary in August shortly after the legislative session ends in May.

Rhoads said he understood those who want to go further. He said the bill wasn't a “silver bullet" but was an important step "in delinking our fundraising activities from our legislative activities."

“Please don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Rhoads said.

The committee also passed legislation aimed at revealing the source of “dark money” behind election advertisements. It does so by requiring those acting as conduits for $10,000 or more in a two-year election period to keep track of large donations they receive and disclose where the money came from.

In the state House, lawmakers last week created a commission that will recommend how to boost the effectiveness of state ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws.

Democratic former state Rep. Ty Cullen and former state Sen. Kalani English last week pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud. They admitted accepting envelopes of cash and other bribes from a business owner in exchange for shaping legislation while in office.

Cullen was vice chairperson of the House Finance Committee. He resigned less than 30 minutes before U.S. prosecutors announced the charge against him.

English was Senate majority leader. He retired last May, a few months after FBI agents caught him with an envelope containing $5,000 from the business owner. He cited the effects of Long COVID in his announcement last year.

Both men are scheduled to be sentenced on July 5. Both face a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison and 3 years under released supervision, and a fine of up to $250,000.

The 60-day 2022 legislative session opened Jan. 19 and ends May 5.

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