Category Archives: Ethics

Educational travel agreement was long overdue

An agreement made public this week between the State Ethics Commission and the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) settles the issue of teachers receiving free travel while serving as chaperones on official public school educational trips.

A press release announcing the agreement, and the full text of the agreement, were posted on the commission’s website on Tuesday, January 3.

The agreement settles a long running dispute between the commission and HSTA which included a long set of guidelines approved by the commission severely restricting and, in practice, virtually eliminating educational trips by students and teachers. Those guidelines were challenged by HSTA, first in an appeal to the commission itself, and then to court, where the commission’s opinion was overturned. HSTA was represented by attorney Colleen Hanabusa, who was reelected to a seat in Congress in November and was just seated this week.

The joint press release mention the two years of legal wrangling. But the settlement agreement itself is quite specific. It references both the administrative appeal and lawsuit, and acknowledges the agreement reached “in order to avoid the further expense and risk of litigation, and to provide clarity for HSTA’s members in the immediate future regarding their ability to organize, promote, and chaperone student travel, the Undersigned Parties now desire to mutually and finally resolve and compromise all issues and claims….”

In the end, the agreement is substantively very simple.

It allows teachers to accept free air fare and hotel accommodations while serving as chaperones on educational trips that comply with current or future Department of Education rules.

It prohibits teachers from accepting additional gratuities from travel companies, such as stipends, iPads, or travel vouchers, although these can be accepted if DOE rules allow them to be accepted by the schools or the department.

And the commission retains jurisdiction over potential direct conflicts of interest.

Teachers who consider selecting a Tour Company in which they (or a family member) have a financial interest should contact the Ethics Commission for guidance so as to avoid any violations of conflict of interest / fair treatment laws; the Ethics Commission retains the authority to investigate and charge individuals with violations of these provisions as appropriate.

It looks like an agreement that could and should have been reached nearly two years ago.

One question arises: How and when was the agreement approved by the commission? The members of the ethics commission, and commission director Dan Gluck, along with a deputy attorney general representing the commission, all signed off on the agreement on December 22, 2016.

However, the commission’s scheduled meeting in December was cancelled, and there’s no indication on the official State Calendar of a meeting being held.

It’s possible that the agreement was approved in executive session in November. If so, though, would it require a publicly posted meeting for the commissioners to all gather in order to execute the agreement? At this point, I’m not sure, but it’s worth asking the question.

State Ethics Commission: Guards took $10,00 from Big Island inmate

Earlier this month, the State Ethics Commission disclosed the resolution of a complaint against an ACO (Adult Corrections officer) at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

It involves serious allegations of misconduct by these prison guards and leaves many unanswered questions.

The commission alleges Bernie Abella, and two other unnamed ACOs, arranged to take $10,000 from an inmate under their supervision. The inmate signed a power of attorney to one of the ACOs, who then used it to withdraw $10,000 from the inmate’s account in a Kona bank. After depositing the funds in his own account, he then wrote checks to each of the other ACOs involved.

Abella received $3,000, according to the commission.

The commission does not clarify the nature of this exchange. The ethics law prohibits any state official or employee “soliciting, accepting, or receiving a gift if it is reasonable to infer the gift is given to influence or reward the employee in the performance of his or her state duties.” The commission also viewed the case as involving violation of the “Fair Treatment” section of the law, which prohibits using one’s official position “to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts, or treatment, for oneself or others . . . .”

So from the point of view of the commission in enforcing the gift law, it apparently didn’t matter whether the inmate had offered the ACOs money, presumably in exchange for some kind of special favors, or whether the three were using their positions of authority to “shake down” the inmate. The commission resolution doesn’t disclose whether the exchange of funds was related to any exchange of favors or other actions. And, of course, there are other less incriminating possibilities, but in a correctional situation it isn’t unrealistic to suspect the motives of those involved.

We also don’t know why this complaint came to the Ethics Commission, as it would appear to involved potentially criminal actions outside of its jurisdiction. Was any action taken by the Department of Public Safety or any other law enforcement agency? I tried a quick online search but didn’t find anything.

The commission says the case involved a “former inmate.” My guess is that the inmate went to the commission after being released from custody, and perhaps the statute of limitations had already expired for any potential criminal charges. But that’s just guessing.

The commission settled a complaint after the Abella agreed to pay a $1,500 administrative penalty and an additional $3,000 in restitution.

There is no indication of the fate of the additional $7,000 taken from the inmate and whether the commission, or any other agency, is attempting to claw back the additional funds.

And we’re left with questions about what the Department of Public Safety knew, and when did they know it? Did they have knowledge of the situation anytime between the end of 2009 and the present? What action was taken, if any?

According to the commission, Abella’s employment at HCCC ended in January 2010, just a month or so after the money was withdrawn from the inmate’s account and split among the three ACOs, but whether or how that was related to this scheme remains unknown.

Is crossing the line between politics and journalism an unforgivable sin?

I’m afraid that I don’t agree with the assumptions and insinuations in the column this week by Civil Beat’s “reader rep” Brett Oppegaard.

In a column published on Halloween, Oppegaard took aim at Honolulu Star-Advertiser Capital Bureau Chief Kevin Dayton for the sin of spending time on both sides of the divide between journalism and politics (“Reader Rep: Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi Scandal Stains Journalist, Too“).

The sub-head, probably not written by Oppegaard, stated the column’s conclusion: “The criminal trial of the Big Island mayor demonstrates why reporters shouldn’t cross the line between journalism and politics.”

He writes:

Dayton is another example of a local journalist who left the profession to pursue work in government, politics or public relations and then returned (twice), his credibility tainted by the special interest he went to work for.

But it seems to me Oppegaard’s conclusion–that there’s a hard and fast line between journalism and politics that shouldn’t be crossed–came first, and his argument never really followed. He believes journalists are inevitably tainted if they obtain first-hand experience in politics. But that’s his starting point, not a point he demonstrates through evidence or history.

He does make one reference to Nestor Garcia, the reporter turned elected official who was disgraced while in office and then returned to a position in the news business, implying that Dayton’s sojourn on the staff of Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi was somehow equivalent to Garcia’s epic fall. I think he’s wrong there, and wrong on the larger point.

Dayton was not an elected official, and was never hit with allegations of violating ethics laws. Dayton did his job well, it seems, both as a reporter and a political staffer.

Dayton said by phone he should be judged on the content of his work, not his background….

“I believe I’m a good journalist. I work hard at my craft,” he said. “I try to operate with integrity, and I always have. I hope that comes through in the work that I do.”

I agree with Dayton. He is a good journalist. And he should be judged on his record, his reporting. But Oppegaard doesn’t do that. Instead, he tosses out a series of insinuations in the form of hypothetical questions, some which can’t be logically answered.

He asks: What about “all of the decisions a journalist makes…like what stories to pursue or not pursue, who to interview and not to interview, what questions to ask or not ask, etc.”

Fair questions. But these are questions that are inherent in journalism. They can’t be avoided. And they aren’t unique to someone in Dayton’s position. They are inherent in the fact that reporters and editors are people with their own biographies, their own set of experiences and beliefs, their perspectives and viewpoints, which all contribute to their answers to those questions.

To me, these questions don’t imply a criticism of Dayton or of those who have tasted what Oppegaard apparently considers the evil fruit of politics. Instead, they’re part of the everyday tension that journalists face and must deal with.

This debate hits a chord for me because I’ve done the same dance across the line between journalism and politics.

The difference, perhaps, is that I didn’t start as a journalist. I never set foot in a journalism class while in school, and started my career as a peace activist and educator, later gaining legislative experience as a public interest lobbyist for the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, Common Cause. During that period, I spent considerable time with legislators, legislative staff, and with the journalists who covered politics. I tried to understand how they saw their roles, and I observed the process from their various viewpoints. It was quite an education, one that helped me later when I turned to writing.

Later, I campaigned for Neil Abercrombie, who served in the Senate while I was lobbying for Common Cause, and later served as his “senior advisor” after he was elected to the Honolulu City Council. I left Neil’s staff just before he made his first run for Congress.

It was only after all of that experience that I reinvented myself as a journalist by launching a small newsletter about Hawaii politics, focusing on the intersection of money and politics. I had learned a bit about that topic over the years, having seen it from the inside and the outside. And my unusual background made that initial foray into reporting a success, as I was often able to see and report interesting stories that went unnoticed by mainstream daily reporters.

During my relatively short tenure as a newsletter publisher, I earned accolades from the Republican Party as well as from progressive Democrats.

I was eventually offered, and accepted, a job as an investigative reporter for the late Honolulu Star-Bulletin. My unusual background, straddling that dangerous line between politics and journalism, likely gave heartburn to my editors from time to time. But it also provided an important background that helped my reporting.

And, like Dayton, I expected to be judged on my work. It think that was a fair expectation.

Yes, I personally was a Democrat. But I reported on questionable fundraising by island Democrats, and tracked the local roots of the Asian fundraising scandal that later rocked Bill Clinton’s presidency. My reporting challenged the leadership of one of the state’s largest unions, and contributed to the criminal charges that followed.

After leaving the Star-Bulletin, I’ve continued blogging about politics. For several years, I crossed back over to the political side of things as a legislative staffer, while continuing an independent daily blog. Yes, that was a challenge. And it had its awkward moments, for sure.

I continued writing for Honolulu Weekly and, more recently, Civil Beat. Should my experience on both sides of that political/journalism divide have forever barred me from being a reporter? I think not. And I’ll go further by saying that the experience in politics made me a better and more perceptive reporter.

Mayor Kenoi’s latest escapades call attention to potential ethics issues

Billy Kenoi, the lame duck Hawaii County Mayor, just can’t catch a break these days. His lawyers’ attempts to get criminal charges thrown out before trial was rejected, and then a video surfaced in which the apparently inebriated mayor liberally tosses out F-bombs in a rambling toast of sorts during an after-hours social event at a conference on Kauai.

The Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials Conference was held this week at the Grand Hyatt at Poipu, Kauai.

Civil Beat posted a video of the scene on Thursday (“Profanity-Laced Video Shows Mayor Partying Hard At Conference Party“). It’s a cringeworthy episode, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy as he steers what’s left of his political train into another very big ditch.

Reporter and blogger Joan Conrow (Kauai Eclectic) identified the source of the video.

Though CB branded the video like it was its own, it was actually lifted from the Facebook page of Jonathan Scheuer, a member of the state Land Use Commission. So curious, that CB fails to note the one thing that actually is interesting about this shtick: a public official secretly taping other public officials.

To his credit, Scheuer deleted the two videos he’d taken at the event, and issued a FB apology:

First, the regular folks at the party did not expect to be videoed, even if the videos were not primarily of them. Second, the videos may have given some people the wrong impression that all we do is drink and party at this conference. This was one after-hours gathering at a three-day conference that is digging deeply into many substantive issues that face our islands. I am friends with many, many people at this conference, and many planners around the state, and they are some of the most dedicated people I know. I really regret having posted the videos for those reasons, and apologize to my planning colleagues for the harm this may have caused. I am sorry. 🙁

Conrow is critical of Civil Beat’s use of the Kenoi video.

Though the video has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and isn’t even entertaining, reporter Chad Blair justifies it because “Kenoi has been accused by criminal prosecutors of using taxpayer money to buy, as the prosecutors put it, “exorbitant amounts of alcohol.”

Uh, except that’s totally irrelevant, since no taxpayer money was used to host the after-hours Kauai Hyatt hospitality suite where the toast occurred.

But Conrow is wrong when she says “the video has absolutely nothing to do with anything,” although it’s not Kenoi’s self-destructive monologue that’s of public interest.

It seems to me that there are many potential ethical pitfalls in a setting like this which brings Hawaii’s government and corporate planners together under the sponsorship of many of the same development interests these planners are called on to regulate in their official capacities.

According to Civil Beat:

Kauai County spokesperson Sarah Blane told Civil Beat on Thursday the party was “an informal social gathering that was held after the formal program of events.”

The food and drinks were paid for by “event sponsors and individuals,” Blane said in an email. “The county did not make those purchases.”

…The conference was sponsored by some major corporations who do business in the state, including Kaiser Permanente, D.R. Horton Hawaii, Alexander & Baldwin, Kamehameha Schools and R.M Towill Corp.

The three-day conference included an evening of music and dance which boasted “prizes for best costume!”, a “Casino and Karaoke Night”, and a mid-week golf tournament at the Po‘ipu Bay Golf Course.

“There was also a giveaway contest of three Apple Watches or a two-night stay at the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina,” according to Civil Beat.

So forget Kenoi’s F-bombs. The real issue is ethics. I don’t know about you, but when our public planners are enjoying themselves to the booze and prizes provided by corporate sponsors who they will be called on to regulate when they return to their day jobs, I think that’s a serious concern. And that golf tournament? Did any of the government planners or board and commission members have their entry fees paid by friendly lobbyists? Were development and real estate lobbyists among those registered for the conference? Will all these activities be disclosed?

I hope staff of the State Ethics Commission take a good close look at the various issues raised. At minimum, it would be useful for everyone to have the commission’s guidance on how an organization like the Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials can avoid ethical issues when planning this kind of government-industry gathering in the future.