As promised, here’s the column I did for Civil Beat on the 30th anniversary of the scandal that rocked the State Judiciary in 1985. I couldn’t make it available at the time to those who don’t subscribe to Civil Beat, but that restriction is lifted three months following publication.
It seems appropriate to note, for the record, that it was 30 years ago this month — July 1985 — when critical questions were first raised publicly about an extraordinary political machine that had been organized and powered by key officials of the state court system, utilizing diverse personnel and resources of the judiciary in extensive but improper lobbying and campaign activities.
I posed those first questions in a July 3, 1985, report written while I was serving as executive director of the local office of the public interest lobbying group Common Cause. The brief report was the result of an investigation over several months prompted by questions our office had received during the 1985 legislative session. The report described, in broad brush, a routine agency lobbying effort in support of its budget requests that had developed into something completely different and more dangerous.
The externals of the court’s lobbying had been known and praised as modern, efficient and effective. And the courts benefited from the results, which could be seen in expanding budgets, new buildings, additional personnel and the latest equipment statewide. But what perhaps wasn’t so apparent was how the machine was fueled and held together.
In 1985, Ian Lind was executive director of Common Cause/Hawaii when he produced a report alleging corruption and violations of the state’s ethics laws by a lobbying group associated with the state judiciary.
As I wrote at that time: “While state law does not prohibit public workers from participating in politics, the creation of an agency-based political machine goes far beyond the simple participation of individual government employees in political affairs. It is reasonable, then, to ask whether it is proper for any state agency to move from routine lobbying into wholesale political action?”
The political group — which was only nominally independent of the courts — was initially known as Hui o’Kokua and, later, Employees for Good Government Service, or EGGS.
At its center was the late Tom “Fat Boy” Okuda, who came up through the ranks until he was the judiciary’s deputy administrative director and, at the time, acting director.
Like many lobbyists, the colorful Okuda often delivered gifts of food to legislative offices while making his rounds at the Capitol.
Okuda turned this “local style” lobbying into an art and, in the process, established himself as a major lobbyist, and the judiciary as a political force to be reckoned. This was accomplished by turning court clerks, secretaries, probation officers, deputy sheriffs and others into campaign volunteers, and court kitchens into production lines where salad, stew and sushi for many candidate’s campaign fundraisers were prepared.
Okuda eventually oversaw an extensive underground food operation, with plate lunches delivered on a daily basis to members and staff of key legislative committees during the crunch times of the session when work extends late into the evening.
Recruiting the ‘Volunteers’
A former Senate Judiciary staff member told me at the time that while the budget conference committee was meeting, someone would call the committee office every afternoon to get a head count of those working late and, a bit later, the food would appear.
“There was lots of food,” this person said, “and lots of leftovers.”
Some meals appeared to have been donated by plate lunch restaurants, while others — stew or chicken, rice, and salad — were reportedly cooked in court offices.
The “volunteers” who prepared these meals were recruited through sign-up sheets circulated by supervisors in various court offices. Several court workers told me they had been told in no uncertain terms that those who “volunteered” to help would be rewarded, while those who failed to participate would find themselves in dead-end jobs, or worse.
“I volunteered, but I resented it,” one court employee told me. Her sentiment was echoed by many others.
“There have been reports of peer pressure, implied threats of lack of advancement in employment, and subtle suggestions of being reassigned to unpleasant tasks at work for lack of participation,” a subsequent investigation found. “Conversely, there have been reports of promotions of some EGGS’ activists to positions of power within the Judiciary in return for involvement in political activities.”
Several court workers told me they had been told in no uncertain terms that those who “volunteered” to help would be rewarded, while those who failed to participate would find themselves in dead-end jobs, or worse.
And the same food production lines were made available for campaign fundraisers, where court personnel would — on request — provide food, tend bar and handle all the general arrangements for campaign events of favored candidates of both parties.
By mid-1985, EGGS had prepared food for the campaign fundraisers of at least 17 lawmakers, according to my count at the time.
One senator told me that when he had first been elected, Okuda came by to talk and to deliver the message, “if you ever need help, just give me a call.”
And there were many ways Okuda could offer to help. He could arrange groups of court employees to campaign, doing everything from sign waving and going door to door for candidates to reviewing voter lists and sending out personalized “friend-to-friend” postcards pitching the candidate of the day.
Okuda at some point along the way gave himself the title of “High Sheriff” and took administrative control of the Sheriff’s Office.
He then used his authority to mobilize sheriff’s deputies in his political machine.
A nod here to then-Rep. Fred Hemmings, who began lobbing his own pointed allegations of misconduct in the Sheriff’s Office. We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we both independently found ourselves very publicly at odds with the judiciary’s political shenanigans.
A subsequent investigation by a “blue ribbon” panel appointed by then-Chief Justice Herman Lum found many of Hemming’s critiques to be on point, and also found deputy sheriffs had been assigned to drive legislators to various functions, provide massages to legislators, and to provide parking and other services at functions “connected with raising money for EGGS …”
The various judiciary offices were also expected to turn out volunteers to run food booths at the state farm fair and at Honolulu Stadium, with proceeds going to fund the judiciary’s political activities. Court workers were also asked to buy tickets for raffles and other internal fundraisers for EGGS, apparently in violation of basic ethical standards.
Some of these things you just couldn’t make up.
Wearing his unauthorized title of “High Sheriff,” or “Chief Sheriff,” Okuda “distributed Deputy Sheriff’s badges to numerous legislators, business persons, close friends and others whose connections to the Sheriff’s Office are either tenuous or nonexistent,” the blue ribbon panel’s investigation found.
Key legislators, including chairs of committees that handled the judiciary budget, were given badges that allowed them free parking at the airport and other state properties, as well as the right to carry firearms. Okuda argued that distributing badges to legislators made them more aware of issues impacting the Sheriff’s Office, a view soundly rejected by subsequent investigations. Whether it accomplished that isn’t clear, but it did create deep and long lasting personal loyalty that led many legislators to stand by Okuda throughout the evolving scandal and beyond.
And there was another bit of magic Okuda could produce for the favored few. He could make traffic citations disappear.
Legislators, business people, influential insiders and their family and friends were directed to Okuda when they were ticketed and wanted to avoid going to court or paying fines. It was widely believed that businesses that contributed food or supplies for the judiciary’s lobbying and campaign activities were able to have traffic citations given to their own employees or customers dismissed with Okuda’s assistance.
At the Legislature, it was more routinized. At one time, legislators’ tickets were simply delivered to the House Clerk, who in turn sent them to Okuda for dismissal.
The blue ribbon panel later reported: “Legislators have had their tickets ‘dismissed’ when legislative immunity does not apply. Tickets have been dismissed or discounted for many other people who have no legitimate reason for requesting an administrative dismissal.”
Okuda was ultimately convicted of 13 misdemeanor counts for fixing tickets, including a total of 3,400 from 1982 to 1986. He died in 2001 at age 73.
While the range of improper, unethical, and illegal activity alleged in the Common Cause report, and later confirmed by independent investigations, was breathtaking, this was no ordinary conspiracy hidden in the shadows or behind closed doors along the corridors of power.
The heroes of this whole affair were the regular workers who came forward and told their stories, despite the same kinds of threats and intimidation that kept elected officials on the sidelines.
This was, instead, an open and widely known conspiracy, directed by the judiciary’s deputy director and stretching over at least a decade, something that hundreds of judiciary employees must have known or participated in, while others, including legislators and other elected officials and candidates, benefited from, while the news media watched but failed to see.
In late October 1985, nearly four months after the scandal broke into the open, I noted the overwhelming silence in the political community. With the exception of Hemmings, most elected officials of both parties had avoided addressing the allegations.
“These are powerful people in a powerful agency with powerful friends,” I said at the time.
But two things did happen. First, the judiciary instituted its own internal reforms, despite the lack of support from elected officials. For this the courts should be given public credit, since at the time, and for years to follow, they paid a political price.
There was a backlash from legislators loyal to Okuda, who punished the judiciary with results that have lasted for decades, refusing to fund judicial raises and reversing the favor that prior court budgets had enjoyed.
As a result, the 2007 State Commission on Salaries reported that Hawaii judges were the lowest paid in the country, ranking No. 51 among the 50 states and District of Columbia. Worse, even after their recommended salary increases, Hawaii’s judges still remained at the very bottom of the salary heap.
That turns out to have been the lingering legacy of Fat Boy Okuda, who said everything that he did had been for the good of the judiciary.
The news media, especially Honolulu’s two competing newspapers at the time, did a tremendous job covering the scandal and moving the story forward. They threw lots of reporting power into the different threads of the story, which ultimately proved very important.
And, finally, the heroes of this whole affair were the regular workers who came forward and told their stories, despite the same kinds of threats and intimidation that kept elected officials on the sidelines. While they didn’t want their names made public because of the threats of retaliation, they shared details such as sign-up sheets distributed by court supervisors, that investigators could follow up on.
We were the scribes who compiled and shared their stories. They were the whistleblowers who took the personal risks, and never were in a position to be publicly thanked. I wish they could have been given the credit that was certainly due.
Note: You can read more about this scandal in newspaper clippings about Common Cause during 1985 and 1986, available online here.