How to tackle corruption in Hawaii government? This commission has some ideas

Multiple recent scandals in state and county government have led to sweeping proposals from a high-powered commission.
Published: Dec. 2, 2022 at 5:23 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 2, 2022 at 6:39 PM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Multiple recent scandals in state and county government have led to sweeping proposals from a high-powered commission.

The convictions of former state Sen. Kalani English and state Rep. Ty Cullen led House leaders to form the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, led by former appeals court Judge Daniel Foley.

The Commission report cites many other cases of bribery or abuse of power in every county and said the public perceives a “deep moral crisis” in government across the state.

Commission vice chair, state Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris, said the rash of scandals has shaken confidence and the foundation of Democratic government in Hawaii.

“So the statement that we use ― ‘deep moral crisis’ ― was deliberate, intentional, that this is fundamental to, you know, essentially our continued operation as a state of Hawaii,” Harris said.

Court documents said English bragged to the businessman who bribed him that he could easily kill bills, so the commission recommended legislative chairs should explain why bills are killed.

As simple as that sounds, University of Hawaii Political Science Professor Colin Moore doubts it will happen.

“A lot of their power comes from their ability to kill bills or not hear bills, really without giving an explanation,” Moore said.

Lawmakers could also argue it was an unnecessary burden because far more bills are killed every year than passed.

Another proposal that lawmakers could impose without new laws would ban nepotism.

CCullen, for example, legally employed family members, while illegally taking bribes. Harris said nepotism raises many issues of favoritism and poor management.

“And if you’re talking about the highest standards of ethical conduct, we really shouldn’t be debating whether or not nepotism should be allowed or not,” Harris said.

Other major proposals would force lawmakers to disclose more of their connections to people lobbying them, make it easier to use state laws to prosecute corruption, and set 16-year limits on legislators’ careers.

That proposal split the commission, with some arguing that there is already significant turnover in the Legislature, and a term limit would penalize senior lawmakers when they’ve developed expertise.

But Moore said it would be popular with voters who feel lawmakers get too comfortable.

“That would be a big change to a state where there’s often people who ‘ve made careers out of holding public office,” Moore said.

Former prosecutor and Judge Randal Lee said he was skeptical about whether the significant reform ideas would be implemented, given the history he’s witnessed in corruption cases which led for calls for reform in the past.

“I seriously doubt something will be enacted,” Lee said. “And even if something is enacted, it’ll probably be in a watered down form, whereby they will would be loopholes that you can circumvent the laws.”

Lee said the real root of corruption is the tie between political contributions and government decisions and contracts.

“They have a personal interest to make these donations to get the favorable type of treatment, so that they will be at the table at the time decision making is being made,” Lee said.

House leaders only promise the ideas will get a fair hearing.

But Moore said the thoroughness of the report will make it hard to argue against reform.

“When you have such, in my opinion, an excellent and clear document like this, it is going to be harder for legislators to dodge every one of these issues,” Moore said.