Ethics board warns against accepting tournament gifts

For years swag from the Maui Jim Maui Invitational basketball tourney has been given to county officials

WAILUKU — The Maui County Board of Ethics approved an advisory opinion Wednesday saying that gifts of swag and tickets from Maui Jim Maui Invitational basketball tournament officials can be inferred as being an intent to influence or reward county officers and elected officials in the performance of their official duties.

For more than several years, officials of the tournament that hosts some of the best college teams in the nation have given county department heads, the mayor and County Council members thousands of dollars in hard-to-obtain tickets, along with swag such as shirts and hats. The tournament is held around Thanksgiving every year at the Lahaina Civic Center, which is owned by the county. In general, gifts are noted on county elected and appointed officials’ financial disclosure forms, which the ethics panel reviews.

KemperLesnik, a sports marketing, events and public relations agency, manages the tournament. In an email earlier this year to The Maui News, it said it’s a tradition to offer tickets and “tokens of appreciation” to supporters and stakeholders, including elected officials in Maui County. “This is common practice with events throughout the country.”

In a previous letter to the ethics board, Maui Jim Maui Invitational Tournament Director David Gough said: “At no time were these offers aimed to influence or reward any elected official.”

He added that the tournament leaves it up to invited individuals to determine “whether they are able to accept our invitation and how to report it.”

A sample letter provided to the board earlier this year showed that council members are told that the invitation “is not meant in any way to influence or reward you in the performance of your official duties.”

But the board determined otherwise. Its members have questioned the gifts for years.

The ethics panel will send its opinion to Mayor Alan Arakawa and Maui County Council members, said Deputy Corporation Counsel Gary Murai, who advises the board.

Arakawa did not accept tickets and swag recently, but he and other council members have accepted them in the past. Some council members accepted thousands of dollars in tickets last year, with some saying they gave the tickets away to charity or youth groups so they could experience the tournament.

Some council members stopped accepting the gifts after receiving a July 11, 2016, cautionary letter from the Board of Ethics. The board sent that letter to officials who received gifts and asked them to consider whether the gift was meant to influence or reward them. And, if the response were affirmative, the board recommended they decline the gift.

But, after seeing some elected and appointed officials continue to the receive the tournament gifts, the ethics board went further to approve an advisory opinion.

Outside the meeting, Murai said the opinion is purely “advisory” and not a command or order for officials to follow. But he said the board hopes officials will comply. If they don’t, the board could file a complaint.

He noted that the board does not have the power to levy fines or penalties, but it can refer the matter to the Maui County Department of the Prosecuting Attorney for further action, if any.

“I’m very pleased to see the board is going to approve this after research into the matter,” said board member Sara Gadarian during Wednesday’s meeting at the Planning Department conference room in the Kalana Pakui building.

In an April meeting, Gadarian asked the board to look into the acceptance of gifts from tournament officials.

No ethics violations have been found so far with officials accepting the gifts.

In a previous board meeting, panel members learned that the Maui Visitors Bureau provided several hundred thousand dollars of support to the tournament with county funds allocated to the bureau.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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