Punishing lobbying offenders made easier
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Recent changes to the state's lobbyist law decriminalized violations but will make it easier to hold violators accountable, according to clean-government groups and the head of the state's Ethics Commission.
The panel will now have three years, instead of one, to file civil complaints against groups that fail to disclose money they pay lobbyists to tout their agenda before legislators. Businesses, labor unions and trade organizations typically spend a total of $2 million to $3 million a year on such efforts in Hawai'i.
Ethics Commission executive director Daniel Mollway said he believes that most groups complied with the law's disclosure requirements already, but that some had been able to flout the law in past years.
"The one-year statute of limitations was really the problem," he said. "Normally, you don't find violations of the lobbying law quickly."
The Ethics Commission, which drafted the changes, had originally asked that the statute of limitations be stretched to six years. But in March, the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee amended the proposal to three years.
The Commission will also enforce the law itself now, instead of sharing those duties with the state Attorney General. Violations will no longer be considered petty misdemeanor offenses, but instead will merit civil penalties.
"That may seem like it's taking the teeth out of the law, but it's actually quite the reverse," Mollway said. "The problem with criminal penalties is that you have a much higher standard of proof."
The new system will streamline the enforcement process and allow the Commission to more quickly impose civil fines of up to $500 for each violation, Mollway said.
"I think it's a major reform," he said.
Jean Aoki, legislative chair for the League of Women Voters of Hawai'i, said the group believed that giving authorities more time to investigate would increase accountability of lobbying.
"We thought it was a reasonable way to insure violators will be fined or punished in some way," she said. "The fact that the statute of limitations was extended will act as a deterrent, and that's important."
Other groups backing the changes include Advocates for Consumer Rights and the Hawai'i chapter of Common Cause.
The measure passed its final reading on May 1, and was signed into law by Gov. Ben Cayetano on May 25.
Send e-mail to Johnny Brannon at firstname.lastname@example.org.