Will Hawaii State Legislature Exempt Task Force Members From Code Of Ethics?

Investigative Reporter Ian Lind published a great blog post today listing a bunch of state bills that have passed their third readings. Making the list was HB 2175, a dandy of a bill introduced by 14 representatives. The bill’s quite simple, really: it exempts individuals (except those who are already state employees) who get named to special Task Forces by the governor or the Legislature from having to comply with the state Code of Ethics.

Hot damn! And it’s apparently a very popular idea with our own state Attorney General David Louie. According to the written testimony submitted by Louie on Feb. 15 to the House Committee on Legislative Management, the bill is pragmatic and necessary (click here to read all the bill’s testimony).

“[T]his bill recognizes two realities,” states the Attorney General’s testimony. “[F]irst, that with increasing frequency, state officials and agencies need to deal with issues and situations that require technical or experiential information that government does not have and cannot readily obtain; and second, that individuals capable of providing state decision-makers with this knowledge and expertise often have acquired that information and experience by owning or working for businesses or other undertakings that deal with the very issues or situations with which government needs to deal.”

In other words, because smart people are increasingly staying in private industry and away from government in all its forms (a very novel argument indeed for a government official to make, when you think about it), government needs to extend every courtesy and bend every rule possible to make sure these smart people help out the government whenever possible. And if that means looking the other way when these smart people might in some way benefit in some small, personal, financial way by the recommendations they report as part of a special task force, then so be it.

If I sound a bit cynical, note that I’m not alone. In fact, JoAnn Maruoka, the Legislative Committee Member for the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, testified to the same committee and on the same day as the Attorney General’s office on the bill, but took a radically different view. According to Maruoka, HB 2175 is a travesty.

“While we understand the need for and certainly encourage participation by citizens in such task forces and working groups, there is no sound reason for such an exemption,” Maruoka said. “We are gravely concerned about the inherent risks of actual or at the least the perception of conflict of interest, including undue influence and use of public office for personal gain. In fact, from a citizen’s perspective, this proposed exemption flies in the face of good sense and simply does not pass the smell test. It would not only set a bad tone, it could well start things down a slippery slope. In these times of badly-eroded public trust in government, it does not make sense to build in loopholes that are counter to openness and transparency.”

And just to make sure the good legislators on the committee understood her point, Maruoka made it as pointed as possible.

“The purpose in having a Code of Ethics is to prevent corruption in government,” Maruoka testified. “Every step forward in protecting against corruption helps improve public confidence in government… We want all those who participate in the formulation of public policy, laws and rules to be held to a high standard.”

Given the support HB 2175 has gotten so far, it seems the legislators have a different view of the term “high standard.”

Photo: Kerry Gershaneck/Wikimedia Commons