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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ethics complaint targets HMSA group

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Questioning a long-standing practice in the private sector of loaning workers as interns to state lawmakers during session, state Rep. Bev Harbin has filed an ethics complaint against the HMSA Foundation for not registering its executive administrator as a lobbyist when he worked in the office of a Big Island representative last session.

Mark Forman, the HMSA Foundation's executive administrator, was an intern for state Rep. Bob Herkes, D-5th (Ka'u, S. Kona), chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee. Herkes has said that Forman did not work on anything related to his employer, but some open-government activists had criticized Forman's presence.

The HMSA Foundation is a healthcare research and grantmaking arm of the Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state's largest private health insurer.

Harbin, D-28th (Iwilei, Chinatown, Kaka'ako), said in a statement yesterday that the HMSA Foundation and Forman should have registered as lobbyists. Along with the complaint to the state Ethics Commission, Harbin also asked the Internal Revenue Service to determine whether the private foundation jeopardized its nonprofit status by intervening in politics.

Harbin blamed Herkes for the defeat of a bill that would have extended state regulation of health insurance rates, which expires at the end of June, and linked it to Forman's work.

"It became abundantly clear that the sole purpose of placing such a high-level employee in this important position was to protect the interests of HMSA as the prevailing healthcare provider in the state of Hawai'i," she said.

Forman, the HMSA Foundation, the HMSA and Herkes were not available for comment late yesterday afternoon.

State House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), said the intern program has been mutually beneficial because it gives lawmakers access to talented professionals and the interns a better understanding of how the Legislature works. He cautioned Harbin against making such serious accusations without more specific evidence.

"I hope colleagues are not using the Ethics Commission for their own political agenda," Oshiro said.

Larry Geller, an open-government activist, had dubbed Forman an "embedded lobbyist" and has said lawmakers should not allow corporations to place workers inside their offices during session.

The Ethics Commission has advised lawmakers since 1994 that interns are subject to the state ethics code and should not take any action that directly affects their private employers. In an April memo to lawmakers on the question of whether such interns are "embedded lobbyists," Dan Mollway, the commission's executive director, wrote that the interns could not lobby the Legislature.

Some lawmakers said interns from the private sector, rather than from the public sector or colleges or high schools, could raise the appearance of a conflict of interest. State Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa), on the last day of the session, proposed amending Senate rules to prohibit private-sector interns. Bunda also proposed a ban on fundraising by lawmakers during the annual session and the creation of a special ethics committee, but his suggestions did not advance.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.