Lawmaker’s potential role as lawyer for fire victims described as ethical ‘gray area’

The lawsuits over the deadly Lahaina inferno are piling up and more are expected, and now a lawmaker’s participation in the legal challenges is raising eyebrows
Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 5:40 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 29, 2023 at 6:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The lawsuits over the deadly Lahaina inferno are piling up and more are expected, and now a lawmaker’s participation in the legal challenges is raising eyebrows.

State Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran, a Maui lawmaker, was pictured on a flyer for a community discussion with members of his law firm. Agaran is a partner at Takatani Agaran Jorgensen & Wildman, which has partnered with Morgan & Morgan, a firm with offices in multiple states.

Given the high-profile nature of the lawsuits, and the potential implications of the wildfire for legislative discussions, questions are being raised over Agaran’s role in the flyer.

“There are some potential ethical issues,” said Randal Lee, a retired state Circuit Court judge who is now an assistant professor at Hawaii Pacific University. The flyer doesn’t have specific language associated with solicitation, but Lee said using Agaran’s picture could imply political support.

Subsequent flyers for meetings do not bear his picture.

Agaran is the vice chair of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, which controls the budget and could be key in Lahaina rebuilding efforts.

If he ends up representing fire victims in a lawsuit, experts said that could put him in a position where he’d have to choose between constituents and clients.

“Lawmakers can sue the state, we’ve had plenty of legislators who sued the state in the past,” said Colin Moore, director and associate professor at the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires

“But this is likely to be a massive lawsuit.”

He added if the state is eventually named, there could be concerns surrounding his political ties.

Lee agreed, “Because he’s a state senator, he may be privy to confidential information that the public doesn’t have and he might be privy to use that information for the benefit of his client.”

Robert Harris, executive director and general counsel for the state Ethics Commission would not confirm an investigation was underway but did refer HNN to the Hawaii rules relating to conflicts.

One specific section reads, “No legislator or employee shall assist any person or business or act in a representative capacity for a fee or other compensation to secure passage of a bill or to obtain a contract, claim, or other transaction or proposal in which the legislator or employee has participated or will participate as a legislator or employee”

Experts call Agaran’s position “a gray area.”

“I don’t see that there’s a clear ethics violation here but I think it’s incumbent upon the senator to be very, very careful,” Moore said, adding that Agaran should ask for an official ethics opinion.

Fellow State Sen. Karl Rhoads said on the surface, he doesn’t see a problem and believes Agaran would recuse himself from any hearings or actions that could be viewed as a conflict.

“I’m sure he would do whatever was the legally and ethically correct thing,” Rhoads said.

Hawaii News Now did reach out to Agaran in an email Monday offering him a chance to comment on the issue, but we did not hear back.