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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 5, 2006

Ethics panel weighs use of interns at Capitol

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

The state Ethics Commission has questioned whether corporate executives or other experienced workers who are loaned to the state Legislature should be treated like gifts to lawmakers rather than as interns learning about the legislative process.

The commission, in an advisory opinion last month, also suggested that lawmakers may be violating the fair treatment section of the state ethics code if they are using these interns to give companies preferential access.

Private-sector companies and organizations often loan executives and other experienced workers to lawmakers as interns during session so they can become more familiar with the inner-workings of the Legislature. State Rep. Bev Harbin, D-28th (Iwilei, Chinatown, Kaka'ako), asked for the advisory opinion and filed an ethics complaint after an HMSA Foundation executive served as an intern last session to state Rep. Bob Herkes, D-5th (Ka'u, S. Kona), the chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee.

The foundation is a healthcare research and grant-making affiliate of the Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state's largest private health insurer. Herkes has said that the executive did not do any work related to the foundation or HMSA.

Harbin has said that interns loaned from the private sector should have to register as lobbyists. She has also asked state House and Senate leaders to stop the practice of accepting these interns.

The commission's advisory opinion, released by Harbin to the news media yesterday, said interns are commonly defined as students or recent graduates undergoing supervised practical training. It found that the commission has no authority to bar interns who are more advanced in their careers from being loaned to the Legislature but again made clear as it has since 1994 that they are subject to the state ethics code.

Interns, for example, can't recommend any legislative action on behalf of their companies, use state resources for private business purposes, or misuse their positions to give preferential treatment. Interns also can not be paid lobbyists.

The commission recognized that some interns may have careers that demand they learn about the Legislature, but that they should still meet the basic definition of an intern.

The commission found that since the Legislature has no established definition, that it would have to address questions on a case-by-case basis. Interns, for example, who are well-versed in the legislative process and are paid by companies with business before the Legislature may be more like gifts to lawmakers in violation of the gifts section of the ethics code. Interns who are used by lawmakers to give companies better access to legislative business may be in violation of the fair treatment section of the code.

Harbin said the opinion helps clarify the law and may prevent corporations from having an unfair advantage.

"It gives the people a fair chance at the Legislature," she said. "They didn't stand a chance the way it is right now."

Harbin, who lost in the Democratic primary last month, believes her ethics complaint is still pending. Dan Mollway, the commission's executive director, said state law prevents him from either confirming or denying the existence of a complaint.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.