Sunday, April 21, 2002

Though she was told not to smile, Rene Mansho managed a subdued version of her familiar grin for her police mugshot.

Where Rene
went wrong

City Councilwoman Rene Mansho resigned from office 11 days ago, charged with felony theft for misusing taxpayers' money and her own campaign funds. Disgraced and possibly facing prison time, the bubbly councilwoman with the million-watt smile is struggling to understand her mistakes.

By Cynthia Oi

Michelle Kidani and Rene Mansho once were friends. Not any more. Not since Kidani, disgusted and sickened, left her job as Mansho's senior aide. Not since Kidani saw how hunger for power and a devouring ego had infected a woman who started off in politics wanting only to do good.

Today Mansho, who served almost 14 years on the Honolulu City Council, stands alone, charged with two counts of felony theft, accused of misusing more than $20,000 of city money and $300 of her campaign funds. Now Mansho, who wore the cloak of her office as flamboyantly as her trademark muumuu, may end up in prison.

She has reached an undisclosed plea agreement with the city prosecutor's office and is expected to plead guilty when she is arraigned Thursday in Circuit Court.

Four days after she resigned from the City Council, Rene Mansho hosted a Boat Day at Pier 10 last Sunday, waving a flag as the cruise ship Norwegian Star set sail.

Her fall is an all-too-familiar story these days, one that feeds the public's perception that all politicians are crooks. That perception exacerbates the problem of dwindling participation in the political system. Few citizens go to the polls, even fewer study the issues and the candidates, and fewer yet take the time to make their ideas and views known.

For 12 years, Kidani worked for Mansho. The two had met when Mansho was a teacher for Kidani's daughter and both had been active in the Democratic Party.

"In the beginning, I sincerely believed that she had good intentions," says Kidani, who gave up a good job with Hawaiian Telephone Co. to join the new councilwoman at City Hall in 1988. "There are many, many elected officials whose hearts and souls are in the right place. I do believe she started out that way."

Michelle Kidani, third from left, who had been a senior aide to Mansho, joined a rally in April 2001, to recall the councilwoman.

Good intentions. Mansho holds on to them as her defense.

On a Sunday evening -- four days after she resigned from the Council and two days after she was fingerprinted and her mugshot taken at the Wahiawa police station -- Mansho bustles across Pier 10 where "Aloha Boat Days" is gearing up a send-off for a cruise ship. She checks in with the musicians, dancers and sound man, all of whom greet her warmly. Volunteers, whose role in the program is to wave at the departing vessel's passengers, offer murmurs of sympathy. "Don't worry. We still love you," says one elderly man, patting the disgraced councilwoman on the back.

"She's a go-getter," says Auntie Moana Chang, the event's music coordinator, of Mansho. "We don't know what happened. We don't care. She gets it done."

Mansho takes the words as validation. Dining on an appetizer of soft-shelled crabs at Chai's Island Bistro after her Boat Day duties are done, she proudly recounts the accomplishments of her career, describing herself as the "24/7 councilwoman" who has "a hard time saying no to people who need help for some problem."

"That's all I want to do," she says, between sips of merlot. "My intentions are to serve my constituents, to do what I can for the community."

Dwarfed by office walls covered with mementos from 14 years in office, Rene Mansho signed resignation papers on April 10.

Reminders that she's no longer a public official, that her days of "doing" for the community are over, leave her unfazed. Comments about the irony that the Boat Day program she'd just hosted sparked an investigation into her ethical lapses slip by her.

Questions about her misuse of funds and her responsibilities as an elected official are rebuffed at first. Instead, she chatters on about bills and committee meetings and reports in a repetition that halts only when pushed to answer, "Was what happened your fault?"

Her eyes widen to stop brimming tears from falling, the perpetual smile freezes in near grimace. She nods slowly and the words, "Yes, I guess," hiss through her teeth. For a moment, she is silent, but only for a moment. Then she's grooving again about the bills and committee meetings.

Mansho seems hesitant to examine publicly and privately the mess she's in. "I don't think about it. I try to stay positive," she says. But pressed to pinpoint when it was that she might have lost her way, she responds, "Maybe it was the transit thing."

Mansho thinks that her "no" vote on a tax increase to finance a rail transit system garnered her the disfavor of the system's supporters. They formed the core of her detractors, she says, the ones who would later petition for her recall, the ones who would seek her impeachment.

Kidani, too, views the "transit thing" in 1992 as pivotal in Mansho's slide, but in a different way. It was all the attention Mansho got because she was the swing vote that triggered her ruin.

"She had everyone on both sides (of the issue) courting her," Kidani recalls. "The administration was doing whatever they could to help her with projects in her district. Council members were careful to make her happy with committee assignments and voting on issues affecting her district.

"She thought she was powerful. It was the first time she was the main player. She really enjoyed being that person."

The power transformed her, Kidani says. Mansho became more demanding. As her ego inflated, small matters such as officials greeting her staff before greeting her at public events drew her indignation. Kidani recounts incident after incident in which Mansho would berate people for what she perceived as their stealing her limelight. She began to expect special treatment like free meals and free admission into events. The demands moved to more critical areas: staff doing campaign work during office hours and fraudulent use of city funds, for which she eventually paid $80,000 in fines.

It became too much for Kidani. "There was no one holding her accountable," she says. She fell ill from the stress and, from information in her ensuing worker's compensation claim, what she and others had experienced came to the attention of authorities. Investigation of Mansho's activities began on several fronts. The results were the criminal charges brought against her Wednesday.

Kidani sees the corruption sequence as one in which a person descends "little by little. You take here and there, and no one catches you, so you get used to it."

Others recognize the transformation. "It is a very heady thing in politics, to get carried away with your own importance," says Councilman John Henry Felix. "Simple things, like getting a parking space -- these privileges become necessities. The changes take place in subtle ways."

Tom Coffman, a writer-producer who once covered politics for the Star-Bulletin, says well-meaning, intelligent, idealistic people are attracted to the political world, but are unprepared for the temptations.

"These ordinary, concerned citizens find themselves, through the democratic system, at the table with the money guys. They see these money people are no smarter than they are, yet they're making $400,000 a year. These guys' kids are going to the best schools, so the ordinary people think 'my kids deserve that, too.' It leads them to take that awful, interior, subterranean step."

Awful it is. There have been times, Mansho says, when she understood why some have contemplated suicide. "You feel so low. I never thought this would happen to me." Then she laughs. "But I don't think I'm a bad person, I'm just misunderstood."

The vacillations continue. "I'm scared. I'm really scared. But what have I really done wrong? I was out there for 13 1/2 years. I never stopped. I believe in what I'm doing. All the people who wanted to get me out of office, well, I guess they reached their goal. But I've been blessed to do so many things I never dreamed I'd be able to do."

The worst of it is that she has hurt so many people. "I've let my constituents down. And my family. I try to take care of my family, but they're feeling really bad and embarrassed."

Kidani sympathizes. "When she resigned, my first thought was the sadness of her family. They're nice people. I harbor some guilt because of that.

"We were friends. We were close friends. I had her interests at heart. I was trying to be her conscience."

Kidani has returned to public service. She's a member of the Mililani/Waipio/Melemanu Neighborhood Board and on the board of directors of the Mililani Town Association. Her faith in the political system remains strong.

"When things like this happen, the public needs to reconnect and stay involved. I believe in the democratic process. I think the lesson here is that the public cannot be apathetic, that they should never give up. They should vote. It's the only measuring stick we have for politicians."

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim says public officials can stay on the straight and narrow through one simple tenet: "Do what is right." Kim, who won the office without the usual trappings of a campaign and who took no more than $10 from any donor, says public servants must remember that governing is a matter of trust and "we have to earn trust every day, in everything we do."

"I say this to guide me: 'I promise to work every day to gain the public's trust.'"

People should not be quick to judge Mansho, Kim says. "We don't know why a person does things. We don't know all the factors."

One component of her problems, Mansho says, is not understanding "the gray areas."

As onetime chairwoman of the Council's economic development committee, she didn't see what was wrong in promoting such efforts as the Boat Days program and if using funds improperly was the result, "I was doing it with aloha."

"A lot of people are saying that I crossed the line, but the lines are all gray and blurry."

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