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The January DUI meetup featured guest speaker Les Kondo, Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission. He was in the news that same day for telling lawmakers they could not accept an invitation to a dinner hosted by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association. You can check out some pieces about the Ethics Commission and reactions to their efforts here, courtesy of Civil Beat:
"Ethics Boss Nixes Lobbyist Invites to Lawmakers"
"Consistency and Clarity Needed in Ethics Law"
We all got an education in the ethic law at the January DUI, and I learned 3 things that surprised me:
1. It was shocking how frequently lawmakers are invited to events that violate the ethics rules. The rule, basically, is that any gift that can be reasonably inferred as influencing or rewarding lawmakers' public policy decisions is prohibited. Because we do a lot of business over food in Hawaii, the Ethic Commission decided that meals under $25 are presumed to be OK. Kondo gave examples of about a dozen lavish dinners or receptions thrown for lawmakers by companies, labor or industry groups, many of which violate the rules. All were from just the past 2 months!
2. I was surprised to hear that some lawmakers express outrage at the ethics laws and at the Commission’s efforts to enforce them. Some simply feel they should not be restricted from attending events of their choosing. Others feel wrongly accused/suspected when it's implied that a gift could sway their policy-making. Kondo's counter-point is that these laws exist to protect lawmakers from impropriety - real or perceived.
3. There have been recent attempts by the State Legislature to increase the allowable gift amount to $200 or more. There is an important role for citizens here: We must be vigilant, and when such proposals arise, urge lawmakers to keep or strengthen ethics rules, not weaken them.
The big takeaway for me was this: Democracy depends on a basic level of trust between people and our government. That trust is fragile. It's easy for a public figures to lose it because they represent thousands of citizens who can't possibly know them personally, and there's always lots of powerful people and groups vying to sway them. The ethics laws exist to protect this trust by guarding against real AND perceived impropriety.
Once the trust is lost, democracy doesn't work so well. People lose faith, decide not to vote, and the only voices left to sway lawmakers are the most adamant, determined, and self-interested - further feeding voter cynicism. That vicious cycle is what we have today. Breaking it will take a heroic effort on the part of both voters and elected leaders.
Yes, re-building trust is a two-way street. Citizens will need to muster enough faith to vote, and should do our best to reach out to lawmakers, talk to them, and do our own fact-finding before assuming the worst of politicians. Elected leaders will need to take extra care to avoid actions that can undermine that trust - including actions that are reasonably perceived as inappropriate.The hard work of rebuilding trust is at the heart of restoring democracy.
Mahalo to Les Kondo and the folks at the State Ethics Commission for working to preserve and protect that trust. You can learn more about the State Ethics Commission here.
What can you do? Contact your representatives and ask: "What are you planning to do this session to address citizen convern about the influence of money and connections in policy-making?"