Friendly skies: Hawaii County employees can keep frequent flier miles

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HILO — The skies will remain friendly for Hawaii County employees.

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HILO — The skies will remain friendly for Hawaii County employees.

Officers and employees are allowed to continue to use the frequent flier miles they accrue on their purchasing cards during government-paid travel for their own personal use.

That was the consensus Tuesday of the county Board of Ethics when it voted 4-0 to reject a petition filed by Kapaau resident Lanric Hyland saying the lack of a county policy violated the Ethics Code.

“It is not acceptable that county employees should use county funds to pay for travel and per diem expenses and then derive personal benefit for frequent flyer miles,” Hyland said in his petition.

He referenced the section of the Ethics Code that states: “It shall constitute a conflict of interest for employees or officers of the county to … Use their official position to secure special privileges, consideration, treatment or exemption to themselves or any person beyond that which is available to every other person.”

Because the county doesn’t have its own policy, Ethics Board member Douglass Adams looked to state and federal laws governing frequent flier miles and said he’s satisfied they can be used for personal travel. Adams noted the federal government allows that use, while a 1992 state policy allows personal use if it’s not possible to transfer the miles back to the state.

“I think that’s where we stand 24 years later,” Adams said.

He said the benefit is “de minimis,” and “not costing the county anything.”

“It’s not our job to be making policy,” Adams added. “It’s our job to follow policy that’s been made.”

Other board members voted in agreement without comment.

The miles earned by those flying on the county’s dime could number in the hundreds of thousands.

The county’s 236 pCard holders spent some $1.2 million for travel and other authorized charges in 2014, according to an audit of pCard use. It’s not known how much of that total is for airline flights, but on a rural island where officials must go to Honolulu or the mainland for most government business, it could be substantial.

County Legislative Auditor Bonnie Nims said she’s looking into ways the county can maximize pCard rebates. The project is part of her 2015-16 audit plan. Frequent flier miles aren’t part of the scope of that plan, she said.

“That one hasn’t been on our radar,” Nims said of the frequent flier issue.

The opinion Adams relied on came from a March 19, 1992, memo from then-Comptroller of the state Department of Accounting and General Services, Russell Nagata, who said airline policies were complicating the collection of the frequent flier miles for government use.

“State credits must still be used for state travel to the extent it is possible,” Nagata said in his memo, which is the latest official word on frequent flier policy. “If the benefits cannot be used for future state purpose the employee may use state travel benefits for personal travel.”

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Sarah Allen, administrator of the State Procurement Office, said her office trains employees not to take personal benefit of state travel miles.

“State benefits stay with the state,” Allen said.

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