UH president’s allegation about senator raises ethics questions

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?

18 responses to “UH president’s allegation about senator raises ethics questions

  1. The threat to use legislative hearings if she doesn’t get the right answers cross the line, I believe.

    As to what Greenwood should have done, realistically, she has to do what she did which was to investigate and provide the Senator the favor of inside information that she was requesting.

    You don’t pull out the sword unless you are going to kill. The ethics charge if aired would only have embarrassed Kim, but she still would have the power to injure UH. And anybody who has watched Kim over the years knows she never forgives a slight.

  2. ohiaforest3400

    Kim was quoted elsewhere as having said that she ” only called ad a mother.” If that is the case, any calls should have been placed to/from a private line, not her Senate office. Otherwise, that’s a whole separate ethics violation, apart from and in addition to abuse of her position. Maybe a records request to both parties for phone loss is in order?

    I had the best belly laugh in months when I read that the son had never even applied and had told her that he had only to appease her. Even her own son is afraid — or sick — of her! He starts at the law school this fall; I wonder how review of his application — and his future at the school — was affected by being his mother’s son?

  3. There is no way Greenwood did NOT talk to an attorney or someone in the know who could provide advice for dealing with Donna Kim and such a ridiculous political issue in these islands.

    Any public university President who fails to seek advice to handle this big of a RED-FLAG situation should be fired on the spot!! I doubt Greenwood would have gotten her own master’s degree if she were that incompetent. This kind of situation is exactly what attorneys are for!

  4. What would I have done?

    I would have told Donna Mercado Kim that any man who needs his mommy to follow up on his law school application isn’t someone who belongs in law school.

    Kim’s son is an adult. It’s inappropriate for her to be raging to anyone at UH about this.

  5. I would have checked with an attorney to see if any subsequent conversations could be legally recorded, and if that were permissible, I would have let Kim rant and threaten to her heart’s content knowing that her bullying nature would be clearly revealed.

  6. I remember when Mayor Fasi fielded complaints about potholes from unhappy citizens, and Fasi then used his power as Mayor to put pressure on the city bureaucracy to fill those particular potholes. Listening to complaints and forcing the bureaucracy to respond to them is a legitimate exercise of power by an elected official whose authority includes the right to oversee that bureaucracy and whip them into action.

    Senator Kim fielded a complaint from her son (who lied to her). She believed in good faith that her son had applied to law school and the application had been somehow ignored or lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. Senator Kim, as a member of the legislature, has oversight responsibilities to ensure that the university is operating with efficiency and effectiveness. A small glitch in the way the bureaucracy operates could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg (witness how a few groups applying for tax-exempt status with the IRS complained about the process, and their complaints have uncovered what seems to be a major conspiracy or at least systematic inefficiency). So it was reasonable for Senator Kim to look into the reasons why her son had received no response to his application, and to demand a response.

    It’s unfortunate that the constituent in this case was Kim’s son rather than an ordinary citizen not in her family. It’s unfortunate that Kim’s threat to hold hearings can be seen as merely a personal vendetta, due to the fact it’s her son. But the threat to hold hearings is entirely appropriate if the bureaucracy is unresponsive to complaints from people applying for admission, and especially if the bureaucracy persists in being unresponsive when an elected legislator calls for answers.

    In this case I’m inclined to be on the side of Greenwood against Kim, partly because the alleged victim of the bureaucratic shuffle was her own son, and partly because I recall a flap from several years ago when Kim was called on the carpet for using her office as a place to hold a Tupperware party where she could profit from selling those little plastic bowls. It seems that Kim has a character flaw exhibited by using her government facilities and authority for personal gain. But the situations with her son’s application, and the Tupperware party, are extremely manini when compared with the major abuses of power committed by people like Clayton Hee, Faye Hanohano, Milton Holt, and so many others.

    • But Ken, there was no “bureaucratic shuffle” afflicting a victim.

      Kim’s son apparently lied to her and when her calls to the law school about his admission status resulted in her being told that they could not find his application, she apparently assumed incompetence on their part and went over their heads to complain about them to Greenwood, and threatening to investigate them if they did not find the missing application.

      The more one looks at this, the more it is clear how far Kim strayed from the procedures we mere mortals would follow .

  7. Admission-Gate

    During the endless Wonder hearings Kim lectured, preached and ranted at length about transparency. Now she needs to live up to the standards she imposes upon other public officials. She should immediately appoint an independent party to interview the witnesses (Kim, MRC, and anyone else either spoke with) and issue a report for the public to review.

    The allegations have been made, and they were made by the highest paid public official in Hawaii. They cannot be ignored.

    • Sen. Kim needs to remember that when you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. Anyone who demands transparency and honesty from someone else needs to be above reproach him/herself.

  8. Goodness sake, I hope I am not asked to choose between a dysfunctional, overpaid Banana Slug, aka resigned UH President, and the failed politicians who runs a crooked state senate. No possible winner here!

  9. Oh no Donna – you were my hero for a moment. People in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones. You are just as bad as the rest of “those” you have gone after, if not worse.

  10. Richard Gozinya

    I would have advised Ms Kim that her son should become a plumber. The world can use more plumbers. Lawyers, not so much.

    • So the lawyer has a major leak at his house one weekend and calls the plumber who promptly arrives and fixes the problem. Standing outside talking afterwards the lawyer notices the plumber’s BMW. The doctor says, “Gee you are a plumber and I’m a lawyer and I only drive a Mercedes”. “Yeah” the plumber replied, “that’s all I had when I was a lawyer”.

  11. This all from lady who called Rick Blangardi to call off Keoki Kerr from reporting on the Wonder Blunder in exchange for a one on one interview. Interesting person she is.

  12. From a press release Wednesday (May 22):

    The Hawaii Republican Party is deeply concerned about alleged improper influence and contact between Senator Donna Mercado Kim and M.R.C. Greenwood …regarding admission of Senator Mercado Kim’s son to the UH Law School.

    These allegations of misconduct are very serious and must be investigated. If substantiated, Senator Mercado Kim must be held accountable for violating her public trust. The citizens of Hawaii are entitled to integrity, transparency, and ethical conduct from all of our public servants, especially our leaders.

    The Hawaii Republican Party will continue to champion the cause of honest government and holding all of our elected officials to the highest standards of integrity for official conduct. We call on the Democrat Party of Hawaii to publicly demand ethical conduct from its members who are elected officials and support a full and transparent investigation of this alleged misconduct.

    My response:
    Hawaii actually has a Second Party??? My Word!!! lol

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