HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The two longest-serving members of the Honolulu City Council, who are now caught up in an ethics investigation, claim they had no idea they were not allowed to accept free meals from lobbyists and they're asking for clarification of the rules.
The city Ethics Commission is investigating if it was illegal for four former council members as well as current members Ann Kobayashi and Ikaika Anderson to accept pricey meals from lobbyists with business before the council.
"And I didn't know that this was in the Charter since 1980's or whatever," said Kobayashi, who has been a council member for 11 years.
Kobayashi said she didn't know accepting meals from lobbyists was illegal until Hawaii News Now showed her the part of the City Charter that said no city employee shall accept any gift if it can "…be reasonably inferred that the gift is intended to influence the officer or employee in the performance of such person's official duties."
"Yeah, I was very surprised," Kobayashi said.
Kobayashi and her colleague Ikaika Anderson, who's been on the council for five years, both thought that as long as no one spent more than $200 on them in a year, they were in the clear. City law caps gifts from any person or entity to city officials at $200 in a fiscal year.
Anderson said, "If you're going to go and meet with somebody who does not have an item before the Council and they buy you a $15 salad, do you have to report that as a gift? When is the reporting threshold required? I think that's something that needs clarity."
Kobayashi said, "We have to clear this up somehow and is it OK for someone to bring a lei or a dozen cookies? And it's hard to determine."
They claimed these kinds of specific issues have not been covered in their routine ethics training every year or so.
"Should you accept the meal, should you report the meal? None of that's been covered," Anderson said.
The executive director of the city Ethics Commission, Chuck Totto, declined an on-camera interview to respond to their concerns, because they are now subjects of an ethics investigation.
But Totto said a recent "ethics refresher course" for council members in 2011 did cover prohibited gifts, and he provided Hawaii News Now with handouts from the session, dated March 15, 2011.
"Officers and employees who use their discretionary authority are prohibited from soliciting or accepting gifts from" contractors, businesses or "anyone who has a matter before the officer or employee," one of the handouts said.
Totto admitted the ethics law can be "hard to enforce" and he could not say if a lobbyist buying a cup of coffee or a plate lunch for a city official would be unethical because it depends on specific facts such as what issues the lobbyist has before the city official or how many other gifts the lobbyist has also given that person.
Hawaii News Now reviewed about ten years worth of ethics disclosure forms and could not find a single instance where a council member declared a gift from a lobbyist, such as a meal, even though the city requires disclosure of such gifts.
Kobayashi and Anderson said they will push for new legislation to clarify specifically what's allowed, using the guidance of the Ethics Commission.
Kobayashi said she wants to "Make it as clear as possible too, so that we won't have this kind of thing happening again, where we didn't declare a meal in Washington, and is that going to nullify all those votes?"
"I'd like to work with the Ethics Commission on that to make this clear, to put it into law so it is clear. You can accept or you cannot accept from a lobbyist. What you should do and what you should not do," Anderson said, who's made an appointment to speak with Ethics Commission officials Friday.
Anderson and Kobayashi are now under an ethics investigation, along with former council members Todd Apo, Nestor Garcia and Donovan Dela Cruz in a probe that grew out of a case involving State Rep. Romy Cachola, another former council member.
Records show they were guests of lobbyists at lunches and dinners where the tabs exceeded $200 in some years, which is prohibited by law. They could face fines depending on the outcome of a probe that could last months.
Cachola has settled his case with the Ethics Commission, agreeing to pay $50,000 in fines, but said his former colleagues accepted the same free meals as he did.