The latest flap over UH President MRC Greenwood’s description of a conversation with Senator Donna Mercado Kim regarding her son’s application to the law school is an interesting situation.
During a lengthy interview broadcast on Monday, Greenwood told Hawaii News Now:
Last spring, probably a little earlier than now last spring, the senator called my office and she was quite upset and angry over what she considered to be the incompetence of our law school admissions people. She said they were incompetent; they were incapable of communicating what was going on over there. I said I really wouldn’t have any reason to think our law school admissions people were incompetent but I actually didn’t know on a day-to-day basis: What was her problem?
And then she lit into the fact that her son had applied to the law school and he was being strung, you know, not given information. He wasn’t hearing about what the status of his admission was, and other people had heard and she wanted to know what was going on. And I think her exact words were: If I don’t get the answers I’m expecting, you can expect to be answering these questions in front of the legislature next year. And I said, whoa whoa whoa, let’s just find out what’s going on here. I don’t really know what’s going on, give me a chance …
Kim denied making any threats, but acknowledged the phone calls, Hawaii News Now reported yesterday.
It seems to me the state ethics code would apply to this situation, if Greenwood’s allegations are true.
Chapter 84-13 provides:
§84-13 Fair treatment. No legislator or employee shall use or attempt to use the legislator’s or employee’s official position to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts, or treatment, for oneself or others….
So lets see. According to the story as told by Greenwood, Senator Kim used her position first to make calls directly to the university president on a private matter concerning her son, and again by allegedly saying she would use her status in the Senate to confront Greenwood with the same questions in a legislative hearing if she didn’t get her way.
So would these actions, if true, constitute violations of the fair treatment provision? My first answer would be “yes”, at least regarding the threats. I’m not so sure that just making the call for information, even to the UH president, would be seeking an “unwarranted” privilege.
But it seems to be Greenwood’s word against Kim’s word. But is it really?
Both Kim and Greenwood seem to acknowledge that the president followed up with calls to the law school concerning the matter, and reported back to the senator. Did Greenwood complain to any of her staff at the time? Did she consult with anyone about whether or how to respond to Senator Kim? Did her conversations with law school officials include any mention of pressure from the senator?
These would all be relevant in evaluating this as an ethics matter, I would suppose.
Another question: If you were the UH president and this happened to you, and you received what you perceived to be a threat of this kind, what would you have done? How would you evaluate the available courses of action? Would you challenge the senator knowing that it could cause problems for the institution you represent? Would you seek advice from the ethics commission? Would you call your legal counsel and discuss the matter?
What would you have done in this hypothetical instance?