Raising Cane

Rob Perez

Golfing perks for legislators
may violate state law

At the private Waialae and Honolulu country clubs, new members pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of golfing on the lush, finely manicured fairways and greens that serve as playgrounds and deal-making backdrops for Hawaii's rich and powerful.

State legislators are offered the privilege for free.

Each year during the legislative session, lawmakers usually are allowed to play at the two clubs for only the price of renting a golf cart, typically no more than $25. Green fees or monthly membership dues are waived. And legislators don't have to worry about one-time initiation fees, which can total tens of thousands of dollars, that new members normally pay to play.

It's a sweet deal that enables a handful of lawmakers to break away from the pressures of legislative politics to enjoy the amenities of two of Oahu's most exclusive courses.

It's also a deal that may be illegal.

Other than token gifts of aloha, such as a box of macadamia nuts or a lei, legislators and other state employees are prohibited from soliciting or accepting gifts that are given solely because of the jobs they hold, particularly when no legitimate government purpose exists for accepting the so-called status gifts.

The honorary country club privileges, not available to most people in Hawaii, clearly are given because of the legislators' status as lawmakers. The privileges, in fact, usually are offered around the start of each session and generally are good only during the 60-day sessions.

It's also clear the privileges have no legitimate government purpose, unless you consider providing legislators with play time at an exclusive members-only facility a "legitimate" purpose.


Several legislators who used the privileges couldn't cite a single government reason for doing so. Rep. Bob Herkes, who played at Honolulu Country Club in Salt Lake several times this year, was even more blunt. "There is no government purpose," he said.

But Herkes defended the practice nonetheless. "In Hawaii, it's fairly common to be generous like that without expecting something in return," he said.

Given that these are the people who make our laws, it's disturbing how easily legislators can rationalize their ability to skirt the boundaries of Hawaii's ethics regulations.

They say accepting such gifts is proper as long as the privileges are disclosed in their annual gift statements to the state Ethics Commission and the country clubs have no business before the Legislature.

Another commonly cited line: The gifts are OK if used sparingly.

But all three arguments are shaky at best.

For starters, disclosing the gift and frequency of use have nothing to do with whether state law allows the gift to be accepted in the first place.

And legislators' claim of a lack of a conflict of interest is equally problematic.

Board members at the two country clubs include some of the most politically connected movers and shakers in Honolulu. Some work for or represent companies, organizations or clients who do business with the state, lobby legislators or can benefit by having friends at the Legislature.

What's more, the board at the Waialae club has to approve the privileges before they can be extended to the Legislature each year.

Such relationships create the appearance of a conflict of interest and undermine legislators' public standing, according to government watchdog groups.

These kinds of gifts tend to be about gaining special access and influence with the people who decide policy for the state, said Celia Wexler of Common Cause in Washington, D.C. "These legislators are not getting free memberships because they're nice guys."

But Cedric Choi, president of the Waialae club, said he isn't aware of any potential conflicts created by the arrangement and noted that the privileges are extended as a gesture of goodwill and appreciation for legislators' public service. He also said the club extends honorary memberships to consuls general from various countries.

"I think it's been the history of Waialae and perhaps other clubs to try to honor people who we think have served the community or have a special relationship with Hawaii that we try to cultivate," Choi said.

An official at Honolulu Country Club said no one was available to comment.

What makes the deals even worse from a public perspective is that legislative leaders actually solicit the country clubs for the privileges each year and have been doing so for at least a decade or two.

The Senate president and House speaker typically ask the two clubs to offer honorary memberships to their respective members during the session. In a 1999 letter to then-Senate President Norman Mizuguchi, Waialae Country Club executive Allan Lum noted that Mizuguchi had made the request annually since 1995.

When Mizuguchi informed his colleagues in a memo that the Waialae board had once again approved the privileges, he encouraged senators to take advantage of the deal.

"I appreciate all your hard work during this session and hope you'll take time from the hectic pace for some 'R&R,' " Mizuguchi said in the Feb. 17, 1999, memo.

Lucky legislators. They get their own special R&R. So why don't police officers, firefighters, teachers and other public workers who have even more demanding jobs get similar benefits?

It's unclear how many legislators actually have taken advantage of the country club perks in the recent past.

Twelve legislators -- about 16 percent of the Legislature -- listed the privileges on their gift disclosure statements over the past two years, although two indicated the privileges were never used. Other legislators have golfed at the clubs without disclosing the gift. The Legislature even has an annual tournament at the Salt Lake course.

Rep. Bertha Leong, who golfed once at Waialae during this year's session, said she didn't list that on her gift-disclosure form because she believed the round was valued at less than $200, the minimum threshold for which disclosure is required.

Such reasoning, however, doesn't take into account the value of simply being able to play at Waialae. New members granted full privileges at Waialae, for example, pay a one-time initiation fee of about $55,000; lesser grades of membership cost less, according to Choi.

At the Salt Lake club, the initiation fee is $20,000, with monthly dues of $340, according to its Web site.

Choi said the Waialae club's manager has the discretion to allow VIPs to play on occasion, with green fees typically ranging from $50 to $75, if a charge is imposed at all.

The ability of Hawaii legislators to play at such exclusive country clubs is a perk that apparently isn't very common on the mainland.

Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government, a Denver-based organization that focuses on legislative ethics, said she was not aware of any other cases in which state legislators are afforded honorary privileges at private country clubs.

While some Hawaii legislators see nothing wrong with the practice, it is coming under increased scrutiny.

Dan Mollway, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said country club privileges are among the gifts the commission is investigating to determine whether state laws have been violated.

And prompted by my inquiries, House Speaker Calvin Say, who is not a golfer but occasionally takes his son to play at Waialae, said he plans to ask his colleagues to re-evaluate the practice.

"Something like this has to be discussed," Say told me. "I'm really happy you're bringing it up."

After I questioned Rep. Brian Schatz about two rounds he played at the Salt Lake course earlier this year, he acknowledged that the gift probably was inappropriate.

"It's one of those things that may have seemed innocuous at the time," Schatz said. "But it's extremely hard to justify now."

Schatz said he mailed a check for $120 to the club last week to cover what he estimated was the value of the two rounds.

Sen. Les Ihara Jr., who doesn't accept the country club privileges, likewise sees a need for lawmakers to reconsider this tradition.

"I'm concerned about a public perception that legislators are using their positions for personal benefit," Ihara said. "That tends to erode public trust."

That notion of using positions for personal benefit, especially benefits not afforded others, was perfectly captured in an incident during the session earlier this year.

When the Capitol building was evacuated and searched due to a bomb scare, scores of state workers spent several hours waiting outside, seeking shelter from the hot sun.

Reps. Leong and Barbara Marumoto weren't among them. Rather than join the masses, the two legislators high-tailed it to Waialae to play a few holes of golf.

Does it get any clearer than that?

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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