HONOLULU (KHON2) — Momentum is building to widely expand mandatory ethics training and further crackdown on influence-peddling in the wake of high-profile corruption cases.
All state employees and public officials would have to complete ethics classes upon hire or election and again every four years. That’s tens of thousands more people than are required to do it now.
Lawmakers facing federal charges on corruption were already required to do it.
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission takes in thousands of complaints and inquiries every year. They can’t say if they handled tips about former Kalani English or Ty Cullen, the two lawmakers whose lawyers say will plead guilty on charges affiliated with bribery schemes. But they tell us most state workers are trying to keep things above board.
“A majority of the complaints that we do get typically are coming from existing state employees who are calling out something that they see or they think is incorrect,” said Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Harris.
A bill up for hearing on Friday (HB1475) would widely expand mandatory ethics training to include all state workers. Right now, folks like lawmakers are required to sit through live training every two years.
The new plan would enlist online modules — currently optional — to reach everybody else as a mandate. The watchdog agency sees an upside for employees new and old.
“Sometimes you can get into the status quo of ‘this is just the way we’ve always done something’ that upon reflection or objectively looking at it, that’s not really the ethical way to behave,” Harris said. “Refreshers, reminders, understanding the complexity of the law and how it applies to you is really critically important.”
The Ethics Commission processes dozens of advisory opinions, investigations and judicial decisions annually. Harris said if they find a legal line may have been crossed “we do work very cooperatively with the state Attorney General’s office. If there’s a federal matter, we work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as well.”
English and Cullen were accused of taking travel, food, casino chips and cash for favors to a cesspool contractor.
“No one should take money from people to advance a particular agenda,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. “We have a gift culture in Hawaii. But certainly, that crossed the line here, and we should not, as an elected official, be asking for gifts in order to do the public good.”
Hawaii’s gift laws allow only tokens they call “gifts of aloha.” Some travel stipends are okay if they meet a state purpose.
“Plainly under the gifts law, you’re not allowed to take envelopes of cash,” Harris said. “With the administrative rules that passed about two years ago, lobbyists, people who are in contested case hearings, somebody who is a regulated entity is not allowed to give a gift essentially, except for few small exceptions, like gifts of lei or something that is sort that is nominal or perishable.”
Ethics training is about more than just what you can get and give. There are also rules about fair treatment, conflicts of interest, state contracting and post-employment restrictions among other potential pitfalls.
“It gets really down to the viability of government,” Harris said. “If we don’t believe that everyone will get it or shake, then at some point people start questioning whether or not government is for them, and that’s the type of situation we really want to avoid.”
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“The Hawaii state constitution specifically has an article set aside for ethics,” Harris adds. “We’re the first state in the country that created an ethics commission. But we also have to make sure we’re actually following what the constitution requires.”