Rep. Kai Kahele defended his part-time work as a commercial pilot for Hawaiian Airlines, saying the arrangement complies with House Ethics rules, and attributed his lengthy absence from the Capitol to the pandemic after questions arose about whether he was breaking any ethics rules for continuing his work with the airline.
Members of Congress are limited to earning a maximum of $29,895 from outside sources of income in 2022, according to rules set by the House Ethics Committee. In a statement, Kahele's office said the Hawaii Democrat had earned $29,151.79 from Hawaiian Airlines in 2021. And so far this year, Kahele has flown three flights for a total of 14.2 flying hours, earning less than $2,861.90.
His outside income also raised questions about a potential conflict of interest, since Hawaiian Airlines has business before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Kahele serves on that committee, which has jurisdiction over the airline industry.
The House Ethics Committee declined CNN's request for comment.
Kahele's office also explained that he has not voted in person since January because he is worried about new coronavirus variants and lives in a multigenerational family home. But his office said he remains committed to his work in DC.
"To limit his exposure to COVID-19 and the potential to spread the virus, our office has tried to reduce Rep. Kahele's cross-country travel while ensuring he fulfills all of his responsibilities in Congress," Kahele's spokesperson said in the statement provided by the congressman.
"The Congressman has not missed a single vote this year. He continues to participate in HASC and T&I Committee hearings and maximizes his time back home by engaging with his constituents and addressing their concerns at the federal level."
Questions about Kahele's work with Hawaiian Airlines arose after the Honolulu Civil Beat published an in-depth story looking into his attendance at the Capitol this year and his personal income since he entered office. The report found that Kahele has voted by proxy at least 120 times since the start of the year, meaning another lawmaker has cast his votes for him.
Hawaiian Airlines has directly lobbied the federal government on a slew of bills, several of which Kahele is a co-sponsor, and CNN has confirmed the airline contributed to Kahele's campaign every year since 2019. While the arrangement is unusual, Kahele's support for those bills and the donations from Hawaiian Airlines are not illegal.
Hawaiian Airlines did not respond to CNN's multiple requests for comment.
Kahele's office defended his seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, saying his background as a commercial pilot offers a "unique perspective."
"The Congressman brings a unique perspective to the T&I Committee as a current and qualified U.S. commercial air transport pilot and strengthens the voices of all pilots, cabin crews and air cargo operators at home in Hawaiʻi and throughout the United States," his spokesman said.
Air Line Pilots Association President Capt. Joe DePete defended Kahele in a statement, saying he is a "strong advocate for aviation safety, frontline workers and those who helped us through the pandemic."
He added: "We salute him for his service to our nation and his commitment to staying grounded in the real world while serving in Congress."
Kahele, a freshman congressman who was elected in 2020 to replace Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, was a pilot before he ran for office. The Honolulu Civil Beat reported that Kahele is considering a run for governor this year.
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