Last week, Always Investigating detailed how lawmakers spend their shares of nearly $1 million in allowance they’re given every year, and how the Hawaii Ethics Commission is questioning whether too much is personal.
From furniture to flowers to food, Hawaii lawmakers spend a lot of taxpayermoney courtesy of legislative allowances. Capitol leadership said that’s okay, while the director of the Hawaii Ethics Commission said too much might be crossing the line into a personal expense.
“I would say 99 percent of the time the members are right on the ball of using it for legislative purposes. There has to be a trail,” said House Speaker Rep. Joe Souki (D- Kahakuloa, Waihee, Waiehu, Puuohala, Wailuku, Waikapu).
Always Investigating followed the spending trail office to office, asking to see things on the expense lists.
The office of Rep. Rida Cabanilla (D-Waipahu, Honouliuli, West Loch, Ewa) pointed us to a sketch of her but the representative clarified the expense was for an intersection light draw-up for a community meeting.
After our story, the Ethics Commission office still awaits copies of all lawmakers’ spending lists they too asked for, and director Les Kondo says they have asked lawmakers more questions, like why things like hotels, cars and plane trips are listed on allowance paybacks when neighbor island lawmakers get $175 per diem to cover those costs.
“Where it’s me, I don’t sign my own I send it to the clerk and the clerk will sign it or tell me that it’s not, so we have our internal system going on here,” Rep. Souki said, “and we see no reason why Mr. Kondo needs to get involved when we already have a system that’s working very well.”
While that gets hashed out, the Campaign Spending Commission also started taking a look. They monitor how separate campaign money raised from donors is tracked and spent, and they ran a cross-check comparing political receipts to the legislative allowance ones.
The Campaign Spending Commission found some cases where the same expense was turned in for two paybacks.
Former KHON2 reporter-turned-lawmaker Rep. Gregg Takayama (D- Pearl City, Waimalu, Pacific Palisades) was one of them, several thousand dollars on a mailout.
“There was a double reimbursement, but it appeared to be a mistake,” said Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi Nitao. “We did take a look and didn’t find that it was a repeated behavior.”
“I received a reimbursement check from the House clerk for $4,464 in March 2013 for a newsletter sent from my office, but paid from my personal credit card. This was my first legislative newsletter since I had been elected just a few months earlier in November 2012,” Takayama told KHON2 in a statement.
“In error, my wife (who is also my campaign treasurer) submitted a request for reimbursement from my campaign fund, in the mistaken belief that the expenditure on my personal credit card bill was for a campaign expense. The error was inadvertent… We have since rectified the error.”
The Campaign Spending Commission says he paid back the campaign fund, leaving it as just a legislative allowance expense, and will report the one-time double-payment on campaign finance disclosures as a short-term loan.
The campaign watchdogs will keep cross-checking other state officeholders’ filings.
“We just want the legislators to know we are aware of it and we just want to make sure the accounting is as it should be,” Izumi Nitao said.
To keep the accounting in check, the Campaign Spending Commission has an easy-to-search database so you can find out who’s donating to candidates and how they’re spending that cash.
The Honolulu City Council also posts councilmember’s allowance spending online, largely as a reaction to Rod Tam’s spending habits, which landed him in legal trouble with fines and a couple days jail time.
But getting the same information on how lawmakers spend isn’t as easy. We asked the clerk, waited, got a bunch of summarized .pdfs, then spent hours converting them into a searchable, two-year database.
“If you want to encourage transparency, then you post the allowances,” Izumi Nitao said, “so that the public can see really where the money is going.”