Chair Keith-Agaran, Vice Chair Rhoads, and Committee Members:
The League of Women Voters of Hawaii strongly opposes HB 2457 to exempt from restrictions on gifts under the ethics code invitations or complimentary tickets to a widely attended charitable event from a charitable entity, whether or not the charitable entity is the host of the charitable event.
We caution against being persuaded by the use of the term “charitable.” While it would seem to give the sense of a high-level purpose, we are gravely concerned about the inherent risks of actual or at the least the perception of conflict of interest, including undue influence and use of public office for personal gain. There are red flags here: accepting tickets, even if the event is not hosted by the organization giving the ticket; no limit on the ticket dollar value; no limit on the number of fundraiser tickets that an organization can give; no restriction on whether the organization that gives the ticket lobbies and/or receives funds from the legislature. These beg the question of what is driving this bill and why it is needed.
Public service is a public trust, and ethics and integrity are critical to citizens having confidence in our government. As the director of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Center for Ethics puts it, “Ethics are the standard of what is right and wrong, and they are based on our values. Being ethical requires making a moral judgment, and that’s not always easy. Ethical behavior takes courage and has to be practiced. Public officials feel added pressures. The ethical choices we make often occur in the public arena, often under the media’s lens.”
We also refer you to a January 2012 NCSL article about convicted felon Jack Abramoff who spoke to the Kentucky legislature about his years as a Washington lobbyist and his conviction for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy…
Abramoff had lots to say about how lobbyists work and the traps for public officials. Legislators may be doing things that are not illegal, but are wrong, he said. Legal lines are drawn, but these lines are not always “right.” No lawmaker believes he or she can be bought. But government is composed of “ordinary, decent people who slowly accommodate themselves to a system that is rife with moral predicaments,” he said.” Included in his advice to the Kentucky state legislators, Abramoff said “There is a connection between money and politics. Any gift, no matter how small, is a form of bribery… Politicians are human and humans are grateful to people who do nice things for them. This is how lobbyists gain access… And remember that a public servant works for the public, not for lobbyists.”
For government to work people must have faith in the integrity of its elected officials and the culture of honesty. The purpose in having a Code of Ethics is to prevent corruption in government. Every step forward in protecting against corruption helps improve public confidence in government. We see the proposed exemption as a step backward. Since there are no sound or persuasive reasons to make the exemption, we urge you to hold the bill in committee.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony.