Despite a huge backlog of cases, members of the Public Utilities Commission combined spent more than 100 works days last year attending industry conferences on the Mainland and in Korea and Puerto Rico.
"We knew that the commissioners go on trips but I was really surprised how extensive the trips are," said Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land.
"There are dockets that have been opened since 2007 that have not moved. There are a lot of issues before the PUC."
PUC records obtained by Hawaii News Now show that Commissioner Michael Champley was out of town for 18 days and former PUC Chair Hermina Morita spent a total of 33 days off island, including four days last July at a Governor's Energy Summit in San Juan, P.R.
Commissioner Lorraine Akiba traveled out of state for a total of 58 work days, including five days in Gyeongju, Korea at a conference sponsored by the Korea Energy Economics Institute.
"You can't be away from your restaurant, you can't be away from your factory and we have got so many issues that affect the PUC," said state Sen. Sam Slom, (R)-Hawaii Kai.
"I think the public has given low grades to the PUC because of the job hasn't been done and they don't feel the public has been protected."
According to the PUC's annual report, there's a backlog of 186 cases. PUC observers have complained about the lack of staffing and expertise that has contributed to the backlog.
PUC records also show that Hawaii consumers paid more than $33,000 for the trips while conference sponsors paid more than $24,000.
Consumer advocates said that raises red flags.
"We're concerned if private groups connected to regulated utilities are paying for the trips," Curtis said.
"Is Hawaiian Electric at the conferences they are speaking at?"
PUC members said the overseas conferences do not affect their workloads, since they're able to bring their computers to do their work and check their emails.
Akiba added that if commissioners meet executives of the businesses they regulate at these conferences, they're careful not to hold any discussions about pending business. She added that she clears all of her travel with the state Ethics Commission in advance.
After Hawaii News Now and the state Budget Department began asking questions about the travel this month, new PUC Chair Randy Iwase issued a memo on March 16 requiring commissioners to justify how their trips benefit the PUC and the general public.
A follow-up memo by Iwase on March 20 required prior approval for future trips.
Some of the travel was disclosed in the commissioners' annual gift filings with the State Ethics Commission but some were not.
For instance, in her most recent gift disclosure, Akiba listed four trips during the period between August 2013 and June 2014. The costs for the travel and events that she listed came was more than $7,000 and was paid for by Electric Utility Consultants Inc. of Denver and Electric Power Research Institute of Palo Alto, Calif., which is funded largely by utilities.
But PUC internal records show that Akiba also attended 10 mainland conferences during that period, including events in Denver, Orlando, Fla. and Washington, D.C.
She said most of the trips aren't considered gifts because the conferences were hosted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
Hawaii is a member of the NARUC and pays membership dues to the organization for that reason any reimbursements by NARUC shouldn't be considered a gift, she said.