Complaint against Hawaii County Council chairman unresolved

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An ethics complaint against Hawaii County Council Chairman Dru Kanuha pending since September remains unresolved after a 2-2 vote Tuesday by the county Board of Ethics, with one board member abstaining.

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An ethics complaint against Hawaii County Council Chairman Dru Kanuha pending since September remains unresolved after a 2-2 vote Tuesday by the county Board of Ethics, with one board member abstaining.

The complaint alleges Kanuha acted improperly when he accepted $536 in airfare from the Honolulu-based Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii on Sept. 11, 2014, and Nov. 10, 2014, prior to a bill he introduced to ban electronic cigarettes anywhere conventional tobacco cigarettes are banned. The resolution was introduced Oct. 14, 2014, and passed Dec. 11 that year.

The complaint, filed by Irie Hawaii Smoke Shops owner Mariner Revell, describes the two flights to Honolulu as gifts from lobbyists trying to influence Kanuha’s vote.

The full five-member board met Tuesday in the council chambers in Hilo, with chairwoman Ku Kahakalau and vice chairman Kenneth Goodenow voting to dismiss the complaint, board members Douglass Adams and Rick Robinson voting to uphold it and member Darnel “Pili” Kalele recusing herself from the vote.

It was the first meeting for Kalele since her appointment. She and Kanuha are from Kona.

During a break, she said she abstained from voting because she knows Kanuha.

“I was hoping this would be resolved,” Kanuha said after the vote.

Deputy Corporation Counsel J Yoshimoto said it’s up to Kahakalau to decide whether to continue hearing Revell’s complaint at future board meetings. The next meeting is scheduled for May 10, but it’s unclear if the deadlock on the complaint will be resolved.

“At this point, I don’t know,” Kahakalau said when asked if she’d schedule another vote on the complaint.

Kanuha disclosed the acceptance of the airfare from the coalition before the June 30 deadline last year. The disclosure form said one round trip was for a “policy stakeholder meeting” in which Kanuha was given an award by the group as “Legislator of the Year.” The other was a leadership training session for a legislative aide.

The deadlocked vote followed a lively discussion between four of the members — Kalele didn’t participate in the debate — about whether the airfare constituted a gift and whether it was proper for Kanuha to accept the airfare from the group.

“The award, in itself, is not a gift,” opined Adams, an attorney. “But the travel fees around that, under (county) code and (Hawaii Revised Statutes) … can we find that this gift, accepting that, is acceptable under our code? And I’m finding difficulty doing that. …

“Now let me just say that the consequences of how I feel about this are not good. Because you can be on Oahu and … go to that dinner and give a speech and accept the award, and there’s no cost. … But if you’re on a neighbor island and … travel to Oahu, that doesn’t seem to be fair play because … folks on Oahu don’t have to worry about a travel gift. … Look, I’m not against accepting recognition, but it’s not an official act.”

Goodenow, also an attorney, called Adams’ analysis “a reasonable interpretation” but disagreed about the propriety of Kanuha’s accepting the airfare.

“I don’t think it can be reasonably inferred that the gift is intended to influence the office or employee,” he said. “They have ‘Legislator of the Year,’ they’ve got to give it to somebody. It’s not like they made it up, right, to award it to Mr. Kanuha. … Well, they’re giving it to him because he did a good job, in their view. It’s a little different from, you know, some kind of quid pro quo, or, ‘You did this for us. We’re gonna do this for you.’

“It’s such an ingrained part of the legislative process. I mean, it would be a radical departure to say, ‘OK, neighbor islanders, you can’t go to Honolulu for this.’”

This is the second time Revell brought an ethics complaint against Kanuha. Kanuha was cleared last March of a complaint alleging he violated the “fair treatment” provision of the county’s ethics code for meeting with the coalition but not Revell before Kanuha introduced a bill, that since became law, to raise the age to purchase tobacco products and e-cigarettes, even those containing no nicotine, from 18 to 21.

Revell also charged the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii failed to register with the County Clerk’s Office as a lobbyist. The organization has since registered.

“The point is, lobbyists were favored over the public,” Revell told the board during Tuesday’s meeting.

“My whole frustration was, when the whole 21 bill went down … these people couldn’t answer half of my questions,” he testified. “Why couldn’t I have e-cigs that have no nicotine and sell them to people who are 18 and 20? Their answer was, ‘Because tests have shown there’s nicotine in no-nicotine e-cigs.’

“Come test any of my (products) that has ‘zero’ on it and if it has nicotine in it, I will shut my business down.”

Revell and Sean Anderson, who owns Black Lava Vape, a Kona e-cigarette store, attempted to have Kahakalau and Goodenow disqualified beforehand from voting on the complaint. Their petitions allege Kahakalau has a conflict of interest because she and Kanuha served together on the Hawaii Island Burial Council in 2010 and Goodenow has a conflict of interest because his wife works in the County Clerk’s Office.

Kahakalau said she’s served on numerous boards, but that doesn’t mean she had a personal relationship with other board members. Goodenow said in a letter his wife is a civil service employee and doesn’t directly work for Kanuha or the council.

The board voted on each petition, and both were denied 4-0, with Kahakalau and Goodenow abstaining from the individual vote on their petitions.

Revell said he’s “not surprised” by the vote but is “more concerned by the conflict of interest of the board members.”

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After the meeting, Revell thanked Kanuha for attending and Kanuha told the Tribune-Herald there are no hard feelings.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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