State ethics violators now face hefty fines
Violators of state ethics rules could pay thousands of dollars in fines under a new law passed just in time for Hawaii's peak period for ethics complaints: the political campaign season.
For the first time, state law allows the State Ethics Commission to exact fines of up to $500 per violation, which at first glance might seem weak. But considering most serious cases involve multiple violations, the fines can easily snowball.
Conducting private business in a state office, for example, can accrue fines surprisingly quickly. That is because what might seem like a single transgression often involves using state time, equipment and facilities, which are three separate violations.
"If a person did that, say, 30 days, that'd be 30 times three, and (the person) basically would have 90 counts," explained Dan Mollway, the commission's executive director.
Even in ordinary times, the commission receives a steady stream of complaints. But as campaigns kick into gear, the flow increases, totaling up to 300 per season -- mostly about campaigners using state resources, Mollway said.
Hawaii's 2006 primary is set for the Sept. 23 with the general election following on Nov. 7.
Campaign-related complaints can range from formal charges to anonymous calls from state workers who suspect their office mates might be running afoul of the ethics code by doing such things as selling fundraiser tickets or passing around sign-up sheets to wave campaign signs.
Though often minor, rarely are the complaints unfounded, according to Mollway.
"They may be motivated sometimes by jealousy or anger, but the complaint itself is valid," he said.
The commission, which has jurisdiction only over state workers and officials, had been pushing for the new legislation for about five years.
The measure is aimed in part at giving the commission the power to continue to pursue a case against someone even if that person quits or retires from their state position.
Under previous rules, the commission could only make a finding that the ethics code had been violated. There was no prescribed punishment, and the state agency that employed the worker or official was responsible for any disciplinary action.
That old system left no recourse for punishing a person who had already left his or her job.
A few weeks before the new law went into effect, the commission announced it had dismissed an ethics charge against Sen. Brian Kanno after his announced retirement put him outside the reach of any punishment from the state Senate.
The commission had scheduled a hearing on June 7 to look into allegations that Kanno improperly used his office in an attempt to coerce Norwegian Cruise Line after it fired a man who later became a legislative aide.
Kanno has defended his actions, saying he intervened on behalf of the man because as head of the Senate Labor Committee, he was concerned about protections for workers.
In dismissing the case, the commission said it would be "an unwise and imprudent use of taxpayer resources and taxpayer dollars" to pursue it.
"It's kind of like holding a trial or something like that, but there's no penalty if you find the person violated a law. Just everybody goes home. It doesn't make much sense," Mollway said.
Mollway called the new law a "milestone" in Hawaii ethics reform legislation and a sign of the growing respect among state officials for his and similar agencies, such as the Campaign Spending Commission.
The use of state equipment and other resources by campaigning politicians also seems to have decreased with the years. But violations continue, he said.
"We just ask people to contact us if it's happening, and advise people -- again -- that state resources simply cannot be used for campaign purposes," he said.