Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Senate considers forming
new ethics committee

Reorganization talks could
include study of a panel that
would handle complaints

A byproduct of attempts to reorganize the state Senate may be a new special committee to handle ethics complaints.

Senate President Robert Bunda is asking Democrats and Republicans for comment on a proposal to create the committee that would handle ethics complaints referred to it by the Senate president.

The committee would have four members, two Republicans and two Democrats, with Republican and Democrat co-chairmen.

Bunda's action comes after meetings with Senate Republican Leader Fred Hemmings, who said he hoped that an ethics committee could be part of a reorganization discussion.

Hemmings said his five-member GOP minority is not now part of the discussion to pick new Senate leaders.

"If and when it gets to the point we are part of that and our votes are involved, I hope this (ethics committee) becomes part of the discussion," Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo) said.

"I have discussed with Sen. Bunda's office the possibility of something like this being looked at," Hemmings said.

Bunda released a memo sent to all senators yesterday, noting that he had been working on an ethics committee proposal early in the legislative session, "but it was held so we could focus on the pressing issues facing the Senate in the last weeks of the session."

But Bunda (D, Kaena, Wahiawa-Pupukea) added he thought now was the time to act.

Senate Democrats have been stung with allegations of improper ethical behavior by three members this year.

Before the session started, it was reported that Sen. Kalani English (D, East Maui-Lanai-Molokai) had accepted free rides on a Hawaii Air Ambulance plane, although he had also been given commercial airlines coupons from the Senate for the trips.

The state Ethics Commission is investigating that case.

Also, Sen. Brian Kanno (D, Kalaeloa-Makakilo) attempted to help a legislative staff member who had been fired for sexual harassment by Norwegian Cruise Lines. The staff member had also been convicted in the Philippines of having sex with a minor. When Kanno was unable to have the cruise line compensate or reinstate the worker, Kanno supported a resolution inquiring into increasing the taxes the company paid.

Kanno denied that his actions were improper.

A staff member for Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe), chairman of the Higher Education Committee, sent fund-raising tickets to University of Hawaii members and Board of Regents nominees who came to his committee asking for support.

Hee's staff member resigned and Hee said he took responsibility for the incident, although he had not authorized it.

The Senate is still far from organized for business next year.

"The most predictably unpredictable thing we do is organization," said Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua), one of three senators dissatisfied with Bunda.

Senators say the 20 Democrats are divided equally, with 10 Democrats supporting Bunda and 10 others wanting him replaced.

Kanno has been a Bunda supporter, while English has been a Hanabusa ally. And Hee also opposed Bunda by supporting a resolution making it easier to reorganize the Senate.

Because two Republicans, Sens. Paul Whalen (R, Milolii-Waimea) and Gordon Trimble (R, Downtown-Waikiki) also supported the resolution, there is a question of whether Republicans would enter into a coalition with a Democratic faction.

But Hemmings, who previously supported Bunda, said, "It would be way premature to insert ourselves into the fray."

Bunda said the ethics proposal is not important to the reorganization attempt. However, he still expects the Senate to reorganize.

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