© 2024 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State legislators pass some reforms after cesspool bribery scandal

Hawaiʻi state House of Representatives jan
Audrey McAvoy/AP
The Hawaiʻi House of Representatives meets on opening day of the legislative session at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol in Honolulu on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

HONOLULU — Hawaiʻi lawmakers this year passed several bills to boost government transparency and promote better lawmaker behavior. But their critics, and some lawmakers themselves, say they still have work to do, especially after a bribery scandal sullied the state Legislature.

“One would think that following on the heels of two guys going to jail that more would have been done,” said Gary Hooser, a former state senator from Kauaʻi.

Former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty Cullen, both Democrats, pleaded guilty in February in connection with accepting bribes. They each face up to 20 years in prison when sentenced in July and October.

Among the bills lawmakers passed is a measure requiring state legislators and employees to complete ethics training within 90 days of taking office, and then again every four years.

They also appropriated funds for the attorney general’s office to hire more investigators to address public corruption and white collar crime.

Lawmakers approved legislation testing the use of ranked choice voting for special elections held to fill vacant federal and county council seats. Advocates say this voting method helps democracy because it pushes candidates to appeal to broader groups of voters. It's already used in Alaska, Maine and New York City, among other places.

Both Hooser and Sandy Ma, the executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Hawaiʻi, lamented lawmakers' failure to ban all campaign fundraising during the legislative session. Instead, lawmakers passed a narrower measure that would prohibit holding fundraisers.

Hooser said in his experience, lawmakers raise most of their campaign funds not at fundraising events but by calling people and asking them for money.

“What makes it most egregious is a lot of the donors will have issues before the Legislature," Hooser said. He cited big business executives or major landowners as examples.

“And so when a legislator calls them and says, ‘you know, I need your help raising money, can you help?' The donor may feel, or often would feel, compelled to make a donation. And I believe that’s unethical. Even if it’s not a direct quid pro quo,” Hooser said.

House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, said he believes lawmakers should revisit the issue in the future.

Lawmakers passed another bill that aims to limit the influence of “dark money," which refers to political campaign spending by groups that are allowed to raise unlimited sums and aren't required to reveal their donors.

The measure requires certain nonprofit organizations operating as noncandidate committees to disclose the names of people giving them more than $10,000.

Saiki said he worries significant donations less than $10,000 are being made to such organizations and so the reporting threshold should be lowered further.

“My fear is that the dark money is entering Hawaiʻi politics and I don’t believe that it belongs there,” Saiki said.

Ma welcomed the legislation but said it should be strengthened in the future to cover all organizations that spend on political campaigns, including corporations, unions and chambers of commerce.

“If we want to shine a light on dark money spending, which we all do, especially Common Cause, we have to do it in a strategic way and cover everybody,” she said.

Gov. David Ige has until June 27 to decide whether to veto the measures, sign them or allow them to become law without his signature.

Saiki expects an independent panel he created after English and Cullen pleaded guilty to suggest additional reforms.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct expects to meet every two weeks until Dec. 1 when it is due to submit a final report with recommendations to the state House of Representatives.

The panel's seven members include Ma of Common Cause as well as a retired judge, a former federal prosecutor and a former Republican state representative.

“The members have nothing to lose by being independent and by speaking out. And that’s exactly what we need for a body like this. We want it to be independent. We want it to be forthright. We want it to be innovative,” Saiki said.

The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers.
Related Stories