View Point

By Daniel J. Mollway

Saturday, October 23, 1999

State Ethics Commission
ruled correctly

IN his Oct. 18 View Point column, Common Cause executive director Larry Meacham erroneously construes two recent opinions issued by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

The opinions were issued after Common Cause filed charges in two separate cases -- one against Sen. Joe Tanaka and the other against Sen. Sam Slom.

In its charge against Tanaka, Common Cause asserted that he violated Hawaii ethics laws because his state title and state telephone number appeared in an advertisement in which Playboy TV and Oceanic Cable announced a celebrity charity softball game. In the ad, Playboy TV also solicited subscribers to its TV channel.

Tanaka's state telephone number was listed in the ad for those interested in information about the charity softball game. But he did not endorse Playboy TV or solicit subscribers.

In fact, he had asked Playboy TV to use his home telephone number, but failed to check the ad before print. He apologized for the whole affair.

The commission found no violation since Tanaka did not endorse any companies, but only assisted in a charity event for the benefit of his constituency and the state. One of the charities was Easter Seals.

Meacham complains that the commission should have found the senator "negligent." We, in fact, advised that all state officials should be wary of the use by others of their state titles, state telephone numbers, etc.

Meacham seems to believe that it is wrong for state officials to work with companies in co-sponsoring charitable events, like those that help organizations like Easter Seals. However, this is simply too harsh a rule.

Does Common Cause really believe that a legislator's mere appearance at a charity event constitutes a tacit endorsement of a co-sponsoring company? This is the logical extension of Meacham's thinking.

Common Cause's other charge, against Slom, alleged that he used official stationery for a campaign purpose. Shortly before last year's general election, Slom issued a news release on official stationery commenting on Governor Cayetano's purchase of a residential lot in the senator's district.

The news release criticized Cayetano and praised candidate Linda Lingle. The commission has maintained consistently that the state's ethics laws prohibit using official stationery for campaign purposes.

In its opinion, the commission stated that Slom's news release was "primarily" for a campaign purpose. However, we noted that the purchase of the land occurred in Slom's district and that, as a legislator, Slom may comment on matters that affect his district.

Therefore, since the matter arose in his district, the commission believed that there was a lack of sufficiently clear evidence to proceed to a hearing.

We decided, instead, to issue an opinion stressing that campaign matters should be kept separate from official matters.

MEACHAM erroneously alleges that the commission "broke its own rules" in issuing an opinion instead of proceeding to a hearing. However, he fails to cite which "rules" were broken.

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission has the authority under HRS section 84-13(b) to issue opinions to resolve charges: "The commission may investigate...such charges and render an informal advisory to the alleged violator."

Meacham asserts that the commission needs to "get tougher." But the issue has nothing to do with toughness.

Its duty is to interpret its statutes fairly, and to proceed to hearings when the commission believes it has sufficient legal evidence to meet the legally established burden of proof.

Daniel J. Mollway is executive director
of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

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