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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 11, 2007

VOLCANIC ASH
Ethics reform a misnomer at this Legislature

By David Shapiro

You can tell all you need to know about the dismal state of legislative ethics in Hawai'i by looking at the weaselly path a bill to toughen ethical requirements on lawmakers has taken through the House and Senate this year.

Readers who have followed this twisted display of political misdirection will recall that House Speaker Calvin Say kicked off this year's Legislature with a much-publicized announcement that he and the Democratic majority he leads would impose tight new ethics rules on lawmakers.

Say's bill, co-signed by 38 of the 43 House Democrats, required detailed ethics disclosures by lawmakers and their staffs, prohibited lawmakers from accepting most gifts and junkets, barred special interests from embedding interns in the Legislature, disallowed lobbying by legislators' spouses and increased the blackout period before former legislators could become lobbyists.

With all that chest-thumping about ethics by virtually the entire majority caucus, you would have thought that HB 1909 was golden.

But lawmakers apparently had second thoughts about giving up all the goodies that come their way from lobbyists and others seeking favors from the Legislature, and the measure was gutted when it came out of House committees.

All that was left of the bill that passed over to the Senate was a requirement for each house to establish politically stacked ethics committees with hazy responsibilities.

It was difficult to imagine prospects of meaningful ethics reform going further downhill in the Senate, but it's always a mistake to underestimate the ability of our Legislature to make a bad situation worse especially when it comes to policing its own conduct.

Things looked promising when the Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Clayton Hee declared that the original version of HB 1909 better served the public interest than the gutted revision and should be restored.

But the new bill that Hee pulled out of his hat without opportunity for public comment did nothing of the kind.

Hee's bill restored few of the provisions of the original House measure no ethics committees, disclosures of conflicts, limits on gifts and junkets, bans on embedded interns or tighter rules on lobbying by former lawmakers.

The only parts of the original House bill that Hee and his Judiciary Committee resurrected were limits on nepotism and lobbying by lawmakers' spouses.

Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the legislators who would most immediately come under the scrutiny of such provisions is Senate GOP Leader Fred Hemmings, a longtime political adversary of Hee's, whose wife is a lobbyist on social service issues.

And, oh yeah, Hee used the ethics bill as a vehicle to revive his earlier unsuccessful proposal to require legislators to undergo testing for illegal drugs, which some critics see as a "poison pill" certain to kill any ethics legislation.

Lawmakers ring disingenuous when they now claim that new legislation isn't needed because the House speaker and Senate president already have the power to order ethics investigations.

Say argued when he introduced his bill that rules governing legislative ethics needed the force of law to have any teeth and he and his colleagues have proved it with their self-serving manipulations to derail their own bill.

Who knows what will happen when this tangled mess gets to a House-Senate conference committee if it even makes it that far as lawmakers wiggle to keep themselves free of ethical constraints.

After watching the endless bait-and-switch tactics on this bill, you have to wonder if any law can rein in this devious bunch that has demonstrated such mastery at manipulating lawmaking in their self-interest.

The only way we'll ever get a more ethical Legislature, it seems, will be to elect more ethical legislators.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.