Anti-nepotism law takes effect in Hawaii

Rep. David Tarnas

A new law took effect Tuesday prohibiting nepotism across state government — particularly for the 60,000 employees in the executive branch — but notably exempts the state Legislature and Judiciary.

The law became reality following 31 recommendations proposed by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct following the February 2022 guilty pleas of disgraced former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and now-former Rep. Ty J.K. Cullen. They pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bribes to support and kill legislation on behalf of Milton J. Choy, owner and manager of a company called H2O Process Systems.


State Rep. David Tarnas (D, Hawi-Waimea-Waikoloa) chairs the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, which reviewed all of the bills proposed last legislative session to tighten ethics and campaign spending rules proposed by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, state Campaign Spending Commission, state Ethics Commission and state Office of Elections.

Tarnas told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday that the exemptions were carefully considered, including exceptions for rural communities where “everybody’s related to each other and the labor pool is shallower.”

Specifically for the Legislature, Tarnas said, “According to the Constitution … we have to regulate ourselves.”

So at the start of the legislative session, the House wrote anti-nepotism rules in its employment manual that say “we cannot hire or supervise someone we’re related to, to comply with the way the Constitution is written,” Tarnas said.

The Senate already had similar anti-nepotism rules.

The Judiciary branch, Tarnas said, also “discipline themselves. They’re so careful, otherwise they really compromise their ability to render judgment. So they’re hyper sensitive about it.”

The Ethics Commission supported a bill that failed last session that would have included the Legislature and Judiciary.

Overall, Robert D. Harris, executive director and general counsel of the Ethics Commission, called the new nepotism law “cause for great celebration.”

Asked about the exceptions for the Legislature and Judiciary, Harris told the Star-Advertiser, “We’re viewing this as 95% of a manapua, and we’ll take it. … We’ll take the win.”

The new nepotism law, Harris said, represents “a bright-line rule. Public transparency is good for everyone.”

There may be legitimate reasons why nepotism rules should be waived, such as health care workers who are related and serving together in rural communities, particularly on the neighbor islands, he said.

“By requiring those people to file a good-cause exception, people can see why this reason requires an exception,” Harris said.

The commission regularly conducts nepotism investigations, and “frequently we do not find anything nefarious,” he said. “But from a public point of view, it just doesn’t look right.”

The commission welcomes questions and guidance from people regarding the new law, Harris said, because “we want to give them all the tools they need.”

In a statement, Wes Fong, chair of the Ethics Commission, said the new law “ensures that state employment is based on merit and not familial relationship and favoritism.”

Kee Campbell, the commission’s enforcement director, said in a statement that “passage of this bill ensures opportunities are based on talent, skill, and qualifications rather than family connections. It is a powerful message that positions of power should be earned through merit rather than inherited.”

For more information — The state Ethics Commissions has created a “Quick Guide to the Nepotism Law” that can be found at People with questions or concerns or who want to seek an exception should contact the Ethics Commission at 808-587-0460, or email ethics

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