Raising Cane

Rob Perez

Officials need
the gift of ethics

State employees have a hard
time justifying questionable
and inappropriate gifts

A state senator who helped steer a controversial airport bill through this year's legislative session accepted nearly $400 worth of gift certificates from a key lobbyist just as the measure was being shaped into its final form for passage.

An attorney with the Public Utilities Commission allowed Verizon Hawaii Inc., one of the largest companies regulated by the commission, to cover his tab for two golf outings.

Gifts of controversy

Here are some of the gifts that state legislators or officials received during the last two years:

Pro Bowl tickets
Stays at Ihilani, other luxury resorts
Membership privileges at Waialae, Honolulu country clubs
Disney on Ice, symphony, theater, trade show tickets
Annual movie passes
Golfing at pricey resort courses
UH football, basketball, baseball, volleyball tickets
Special parking privileges
Airline VIP privileges
Meals at fancy restaurants

Source: Gift disclosure statements

A supervising attorney at the state's Division of Consumer Advocacy, which monitors regulatory filings of utilities on behalf of Hawaii consumers, received four tickets to the symphony compliments of one of those utilities, Hawaiian Electric Co.

A state House member flew to Maui to play in a Verizon golf tournament, with the phone company footing the $534 tab for airfare, hotel room, food and golfing expenses.

Somebody, please call the ethics squad. Quick.

Key state employees -- especially legislators -- have had trouble in the recent past discerning what they should and should not accept as gifts from companies and lobbyists who do business with the state.

Based on a review of gift disclosure statements filed by state workers for the two years that ended June 30, some are in obvious need of ethics training.

They need training not only to learn what is permissible under state laws covering gifts, but to understand why taking gifts that may be permissible sometimes still isn't a good idea, given the public perception it creates.

Why else would Sen. Cal Kawamoto, who helped win approval of a financial-relief bill for airport concessionaires, accept $375 in gift certificates from lobbyist James J. Stone, who represents concessionaires, just as Kawamoto and other legislators were set to amend the bill in the waning days of the session?

Or why would Michael Azama, a PUC attorney, allow Verizon to pay $250 to cover his golf tab at two tournaments in December 2001 and April 2002?

Or Laureen K.K. Wong, supervising public utilities attorney for the Division of Consumer Advocacy, accept four symphony tickets valued at $100 from HECO in April?

Or Rep. Ezra Kanoho, a Kauai lawmaker, permit Verizon to pay for his airfare, lodging and other expenses so he could play in the Verizon Hawaii Hall of Fame Invitational golf tournament on Maui in May 2002?

Those are just a few of the more egregious examples on disclosure forms that state employees are required to fill out annually if they get gifts valued at more than $200 from one source and are likely to take action affecting that source.

Legislators and state officials reported accepting Pro Bowl tickets, overnight cruises, exclusive country club memberships, annual movie passes, expensive hotel stays, golf outings, Disney on Ice tickets and other gifts that raise red flags.

Some gifts seemed blatantly inappropriate. Others appeared questionable at best.

Of course, most gifts received by state workers are of nominal value -- a box of manapua, a potted plant or a lei -- and raise no questions about attempts to influence a government decision.

It's the free country club memberships, free concert tickets, free annual movie passes and the like that can get recipients into trouble.

The commission is looking into multiple cases from the past two years to check whether state laws were violated, according to Dan Mollway, its executive director.

Two laws generally cover gifts. One prohibits an employee from soliciting or accepting any gift if "it can be reasonably inferred" that the gift is intended to influence the employee's duties or as a reward for past action. The other law prohibits employees from accepting gifts solely because of their status as a state official or employee. Violators are subject to disciplinary action and other consequences.

Mollway said the problem of workers accepting inappropriate gifts has lessened considerably since the state's gift-disclosure law was passed in 1992, requiring public filings.

"You still see signs of things that are inappropriate. But I guess we're dealing with the uninformed, the hopeless and the clueless," he said.

Still, some people, including Sen. Kawamoto, don't understand what all the fuss is about.

Asked about accepting gift certificates from a lobbyist pushing for a bill at a critical time for the legislation, Kawamoto saw no problem, not even with the perception his actions created. He said his attempt to help the struggling airport concessionaires had nothing to do with gifts but was an effort to assist long-time contributors to the airport's operation.

Although the Legislature passed the bill, Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed it.

Kawamoto likened getting gifts from lobbyists to people receiving presents from family at Christmas. "They just offer because they like you, not because of what your position is."

Azama, the PUC attorney, said the two golf outings were the only times he accepted gifts from Verizon and that he wouldn't do it again.

Wong, the consumer advocacy attorney, said she now realizes that accepting the symphony tickets was inappropriate. But in April she didn't see it that way. HECO, which was sponsoring a symphony Pops concert, called the division to offer unsold tickets to anyone who wanted them.

"The tickets would have gone to waste, that was my understanding," Wong said. "I did not believe they were trying to somehow influence my work."

Lingle's administration nonetheless decided this week to repay HECO not only for the symphony tickets but for the $3,375 the utility paid in June to cover registration fees to an industry-sponsored conference for Wong, two of her colleagues, PUC Chairman Carlito Calisboso and a PUC engineer.

The payments were disclosed on the gift statements.

Although Calisboso and the others had cleared the arrangement with the ethics panel before accepting HECO's offer, they were unaware of the administration policy of not accepting such gifts, said Bob Awana, Lingle's chief of staff.

Lingle's policy is that if the state sends anyone to a conference, the state will pay, Awana said. "We would never want our people to be placed in a position where there's a sense of obligation," he said. "There's no gray area there."

Rep. Kanoho, who accepted the Verizon-paid golfing trip, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Verizon, however, saw nothing wrong with paying for Kanoho's trip or Azama's golf -- even though the Lingle administration, according to Awana, is reimbursing Verizon for the latter.

"Verizon typically invites a mix of customers, business and community leaders to local events, such as golf tournaments," spokeswoman Ann Nishida said. "This occasional offer of reasonable entertainment can help facilitate our efforts to build strong and trusting relationships and are well within the state's code of ethics and Verizon's own code of business conduct."

Other companies' attempts to build similar relationships with legislators and state officials also resulted in gift giving that seems inappropriate.

House Speaker Calvin Say, for instance, reported getting golf and tennis privileges (no value listed) during the 2002 legislative session at Waialae Country Club, the exclusive members-only facility. Say also reported getting 12 Pro Bowl tickets worth $900.

He accepted the Waialae gift, as did several other legislators, even though the ethics commission historically has said such courtesy memberships or privileges at private country clubs are inappropriate.

Say said he isn't a golfer but occasionally uses the Waialae club to take his son golfing. Asked how that would further his ability to do his job as a legislator, Say acknowledged that would be tough to justify.

Asked about the Pro Bowl tickets, Say said he accepted them to support an event that has greatly contributed to the economy and to help fill seats during the game. The Pro Bowl usually sells out every year.

Say said the House has tried dealing with the gifts issue in the past by considering legislation to set a cap on the value of a gift one can receive, but deciding on a threshold has been difficult. (The county's cap is $200.)

"If this is a major issue with the general public, we'll probably try addressing it again," Say said.

One challenge with Hawaii's current law is that it puts the recipient in the position of interpreting whether a gift can be reasonably seen as a way of trying to influence or reward the person. Ideally, the ethics commission should be consulted for advice.

But that isn't always practical, which can help explain why gifts that seem inappropriate are accepted nonetheless.

Sen. Les Ihara Jr. has the best advice: "If in doubt, don't accept it."

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:


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