State Ethics Commission director fights effort to fire him

State Ethics Commission director fights effort to fire him
Published: May. 27, 2015 at 10:11 PM HST|Updated: May. 27, 2015 at 10:26 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The executive director of the state Ethics Commission fought back against an effort to fire him Wednesday, under criticism that his office has gone too far enforcing ethics rules.

After meeting behind closed doors in executive session to discuss Les Kondo's job evaluation for about four hours Wednesday afternoon, the commission reached no final conclusion and will schedule another special meeting to discuss Kondo's fate in June.

Two months ago, Kondo's office said the ethics code prohibits public school teachers from accepting free travel and other benefits from educational tour companies in exchange for chaperoning student trips to the nation's capital, New York and other countries.

But top education officials said commission staff failed to provide timely, clear ethics advice in that case.

"Frankly, the department has a number of concerns as a result of the response process that the Ethics Commission has imposed over the past few months," said state Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi.

Lea Albert, the complex area superintendent involved in the case of King Intermediate students' trip to the East Coast, told the commissioners, "I've found the Ethics Commission to be very helpful in the past when I've called with questions. But they were not helpful in this case."

Under Kondo's leadership, the Ethics Commission has cracked down on state lawmakers accepting free meals and gifts and free tickets to charity fundraisers.

State House Speaker Joe Souki wrote a letter to the commission April 27, complaining about "unilateral imposition of restrictions, often based neither on historical practices nor prior commission opinions."

Sources said some of the five-member Ethics Commission wanted to fire Kondo after giving him an "average" job evaluation a month ago. His last evaluation three years ago by the panel, which had several different members in 2012, was "outstanding."

"It's not my job to make legislators and employees happy. It's not my job to tell people what they want to hear or let them do what they want to do. It's my job to do what right," Kondo told commissioners Wednesday.

Kondo took issue with the commission's finding that he did a poor job giving them legal advice.

"Frankly, I feel that I give you superior legal advice, solid legal analysis. Simply because you or others may disagree, does not mean my legal analysis is poor," Kondo said.

He said in the one case that commissioners rejected his advice and followed the Attorney General's office advice, a Circuit Court judge issued an order backing up Kondo's advice.

The commission also told him he had poor relations with other state departments but leaders of several key agencies spoke in his defense.

"He really cares about the community, wants to make a difference. He's not afraid to fight the fight that needs to be fought sometimes, because at the end of the day, we all have to go home and live with these decisions," said Kristin Izumi-Nitao, executive director of the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Representatives of the most recent former Democratic and Republican governors also spoke in support of Kondo and said he was always fair.

Bruce Coppa, who served as chief of staff for former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, told commissioners, "I would ask that when you evaluate Mr. Kondo, you take into consideration the job that he has to do with the many government officials that he has to deal with both in the legislature and within the government itself, 18 departments."

Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, a Republican, said," He made decisions based on what was fair and what was right and what he believed was in accordance to the law. Not because of political pressure, not because of the friendships, not because of emotion or prejudice."

Kondo said he's puzzled the commissioners found he does a poor job in maintaining professional relations with other government departments.

"That was is just wrong," Kondo said. "I have tremendous relationships with other state officials, other state agencies. Many officials talk to me regularly."

"We are now investigating and enforcing more types of violations, whereas in the past, the commission took a more passive approach," Kondo added.

"I feel like you guys have evaluated me on very limited interaction that you have with me. You see me one time every month for a few hours but I ever month I work 200 or more hours," told commissioners. "In many cases, I suggest you have no personal knowledge of my job performance."

Kondo oversees the enforcement of state ethics laws for 65,000 state employees with a staff of ten people.

Chuck Totto, the executive director of the city Ethics Commission for the last 15 years, told members of the state Ethics Commission Kondo's job is a difficult one.

"The commission acts on behalf of the public, not the legislature or the administration. Ethics decisions are based on what the law demands," Totto said.

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