Category Archives: Ethics

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.

State Ethics Commission solicits suggestions from public

The State Ethics Commission has set aside its October 20 meeting to hear suggestions comments and suggestions on what it should do to “fulfill its constitutional duty to promote the highest ethical standards in state government.”

The commission says it wants to hear from stakeholders, “including state officials, lawmakers, lobbyists, non-profit organizations, and the general public.”

The move comes as the commission’s new executive director and chief legal counsel, Dan Gluck, is settling into the new role. Gluck previously served as legal director for the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Here’s the advance notice of the commission’s October, which appeared in its September newsletter.

Do you have suggestions for how the State Ethics Commission can best serve the public? If so, please join us on October 20, 2016 at 10:00 a.m. for a public meeting on ethics in state government! The Commission is interested in hearing from state officials, lawmakers, lobbyists, non-profit organizations, and the general public as to how the Commission can best fulfill its constitutional duty to promote the highest ethical standards in state government.

As the Hawaii Constitution says, “The people of Hawaii believe that public officers and employees must exhibit the highest standards of ethical conduct and that these standards come from the personal integrity of each individual in government.” The Legislature passed laws to implement this mandate – specifically, the Hawaii Ethics Code (Hawaii Revised Statutes chapter 84) and the Lobbyists Law (Hawaii Revised Statutes chapter 97) – and created the Hawaii State Ethics Commission to implement and enforce these laws.

The Commission is considering its mission and how best to promote and foster integrity in state government; the Commission will discuss these questions at its October public meeting, and invites all interested individuals to participate – in person and/or in writing.

The Commission will consider issues such as whether to:

(1) ask the Legislature to amend existing laws;

(2) begin the process to pass administrative rules to interpret ex- isting laws; and/or

(3) focus its enforcement efforts in a particular area.

The Commission intends to hold this meeting in its usual meeting location (1001 Bishop Street, Suite 960) but may move to a larger venue if necessary. To assist the Commission in its planning, kindly RSVP to if you plan to attend (though a reservation is not necessary to attend). If you are on a neighbor island and would like to participate, please let us know; please also notify us if you require an accommodation of any kind and we would be happy to assist you.

The Commission strongly encourages those with feedback for the Commission to submit written comments in advance of the meeting (to; this will give the Commissioners an opportunity to consider and address the community’s concerns in its discussion.

The meeting agenda will be posted on the State Ethics Commission’s website ( no later than Friday, October 14, 2016. If you have any questions, please contact us at or (808) 587-0460.

Candidate disclosures offer rare glimpse at finances

Here’s a pot of data that often gets overlooked.

I’m talking about the financial disclosures filed by candidates for state offices, including House, Senate, and Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

These aren’t as useful for those incumbents running for reelection, since their regular annual disclosures include more information.

However, the candidate disclosures are very useful for learning more about the challengers, a list which usually includes at least a few people of interest because of their roles in community groups, business, or public affairs.

In many cases, the candidate disclosure provide the only public accounting of their financial interests and business ties.

Okay, that may sound a lot like snooping. But to a reporter, or a citizen activist, information can be powerful, whether immediately or sometime in the future.

The disclosure process is administered by the State Ethics Commission, which recently published a list of candidates who have filed this year. It’s a good place to start.

Browse the list, and if you see a name of interest to you, then check the candidate disclosure database, click on the link for the person’s form, and check it out. You can save the form as a pdf for future reference.

Ethics Commission looks at free passes to World Conservation Congress

The State Ethics Commission issued a letter this week containing “guidance on acceptance of passes to the World Conservation Congress.”

The letter is posted on the commission’s website.

When I saw the link, I wondered whether this would be another strict and literal interpretation of the ethics code that would question or put limits on the acceptance of free passes.

It seems that legislators, along with certain state officials and employees, have been offered various passes to attend part or all of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) World Conservation Congress (“WCC”) events during the first part of September. The passes range from 1-day passes, to passes valid for the entire 10 day event.

Those being offered the ten day passes, valued at $900, include “the Senate president; the chairs of the Senate committees on Tourism and International Affairs, and Water, Land, and Agriculture; the House speaker; and the chairs of the House committees on Tourism, and Water and Land.”

I expected, based on guidance on other matters over the past few years, that the analysis would then review the gift laws and their application to such affairs, looking for potential questions that might be raised.

Instead, the commission staff disposed of the issue in a simple paragraph.

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission recognizes the importance to the State in hosting the WCC. The Commission views the attendance by the legislators and state officials and employees described above as beneficial to the interests of the State. The Commission notes that the WCC appears to be a joint project between the State of Hawaii and the IUCN and, as such, the State has recognized that its interests are served by promoting the WCC. Consequently, the Commission does not believe that the acceptance of the passes as described above is prohibited by the State Ethics Code, Hawaii Revised Statutes chapter 84.

I found this refreshing. No need to delve into the specific situation of the positions of each of those receiving passes and questioning whether or not the “gift” would be appropriate. No limiting their participation to the specific parts of the program most relevant to their position or job. Simply a recognition that the conference as a whole benefits the state and its officials and employees as well.

It’s too early to say whether this could signal that the commission will be approaching more issues in this manner, but we can hope.