Vegas trip is an
As the state's top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Mark Bennett is supposed to represent all the people of Hawaii. Even though he was appointed by a Republican governor, the job of enforcing state law demands that his office be free of partisanship.
Bennett fell short of that standard on a trip to Las Vegas this summer.
In June he accepted more than $1,300 worth of air travel, hotel accommodations and meals from the Republican Attorneys General Association, a partisan organization that has generated controversy over its fund-raising practices, to attend an association conference there.
The Republican group solicits money from big business and industry to help get Republicans elected to AG seats. Unlike Hawaii's appointed position, most states have elected attorneys general.
Accepting the travel gift doesn't mean Bennett is obligated to push an agenda of his GOP colleagues. And it doesn't mean he has to participate in any of the group's fund-raising efforts. He steers clear of that.
But the fact that he went to the three-day meeting on the organization's dime brings a taint of partisanship to an office that is supposed to be nonpartisan and raises ethical questions about an office that is supposed to be bound by the highest of ethical standards.
Bennett disputes both notions. The trip didn't come with any taint and didn't violate any ethics standards, he said.
Bennett, in fact, sought the opinion of the state Ethics Commission before going on the association-funded trip. The commission gave its blessing.
He also was open about accepting the gift, properly disclosed it on the required state forms and said he received no personal benefit from it.
What's more, Bennett noted that he accomplished his two main goals for the trip: to enlist the support of several key Republican attorneys general on the so-called Akaka bill, which grants federal recognition to Native Hawaiians, and to participate in a panel discussion on gasoline pricing and other energy issues.
So what's the problem?
It's one of appearance.
Even though the ethics commission concluded that Bennett's acceptance of the free trip wouldn't violate Hawaii law, his office should be concerned with how such an arrangement looks to the public, the people he serves. From that perspective, Bennett's standards have to be higher than the commission's.
By accepting financial support from the Republican AG group, his office brought a partisan component into the picture, along with some of the controversy that has dogged the association over its fund-raising activities.
Members of the GOP group, for instance, have solicited political contributions from companies and trade groups subject to government lawsuits and regulations in their states, have not had to disclose publicly that they solicited the funding and funneled the money through the Republican National Committee, according to press reports.
Tobacco, energy, pharmaceutical and banking concerns -- the kinds of businesses that state AGs sometimes scrutinize in dealing with antitrust and other regulatory issues -- have been among the targeted industries. The association's critics have likened the GOP fund-raising scheme to money laundering.
At least one member found it too difficult to stomach. When former Ohio AG Betty Montgomery quit the group, she told a newspaper, "I raised some questions about who we were raising money from. It wasn't worth trying to sort out the ethical land mines."
Even Hawaii's ethics commission, when reviewing Bennett's request, raised concerns about the group's corporate contributions, noting the possibility that some donors may be subject to official action by Bennett's office. In the end, however, the commission concluded that the benefit to the state by having Bennett attend the conference outweighed questions over the donor issue. It also determined that a strong nonpartisan component of the conference made Bennett's presence there on state time appropriate.
Critics don't buy that.
"You're either nonpartisan or you're not," said Jacqueline Parnell, director of the Hawaii Pro-Democracy Initiative. "You can't have it both ways."
Bennett said criticisms of the trip were unfounded. "The fact that you say it doesn't make it correct," he said.
He pointed out that RAGA has never spent money on a Hawaii election and never lobbies on issues before the state, which means the gift could not be reasonably inferred to be an attempt to influence his official actions. That's one standard under Hawaii law for determining whether a gift is acceptable by a state employee.
Bennett also said he doesn't participate in the group's fund-raising activities and is unaware of who contributes, further undermining any criticism that his trip funding came with strings attached.
Bennett likewise dismissed the notion that accepting such a gift brought a partisan taint to his office, arguing that he went to the conference with specific goals that would benefit the state, not him.
Asked why he couldn't discuss the same issues with his counterparts at one of the meetings held each year by the nonpartisan National Association of Attorneys General, Bennett said the Las Vegas conference provided a "perfect opportunity" to get substantial one-on-one time with key AGs respected by the Bush administration.
The formation of RAGA in 1999 and a Democratic counterpart last year have added to concerns that AG offices, once seen as above the political fray, are becoming more partisan.
Bennett went on the Las Vegas trip after discussing it with his boss, Gov. Linda Lingle, who supported him going on RAGA's dime. Lack of state funds was one factor.
Yet the Lingle administration has a policy that basically calls for the state, not outside sources, to pay for its representatives to attend conferences, Lingle chief of staff Bob Awana said in an interview several weeks ago. If an outside entity picked up the tab, there could be a sense of obligation to the donor, and the state wants to avoid that, Awana said.
How was this trip different?
"You raise a very legitimate question," Awana said last week, promising to look into the matter and respond.
The response never came.
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Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
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