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Editorials
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Friday, July 12, 2002



[ OUR OPINION ]

Public gouged to pay
cops’ attorney fees


THE ISSUE

The Honolulu Police Commission has authorized city funds to pay for the criminal defense of an officer facing theft charges.


LOOSE interpretation of a bad law is about to result in the victims of theft paying the criminal defense costs of the alleged thieves. The victims in this case are Honolulu taxpayers and the accused are current and former police officers. The generosity with public money is that of the Honolulu Police Commission.

The 1989 Legislature enacted a law allowing a county police commission to authorize the county to pay for the defense of a police officer being sued or prosecuted for alleged wrongdoing when "done in the performance of the police officer's duty." The commission seems to interpret that to mean any activity performed while on the job -- even stealing from taxpayers.

In a closed meeting last month, the commission approved city money to be spent for the defense of Maj. Jeffrey Owens, who is charged with ordering workers who normally prepare meals for jail inmates to fix elaborate feasts for themselves and other officers, including Chief Lee Donohue. Retired Assistant Police Chief Rafael Fajardo, who faces similar charges, also can expect to be provided a lawyer at public expense. Fajardo has maintained that the food money came out of his own pocket.

Police Commission Chairman Leonard Leong said the commission decided that Owens' legal expenses should come from tax money because his alleged actions "were within the scope of his work." That is akin to saying that a bank teller charged with taking money from the till was doing his job.

Owens reportedly told the commission that rack of lamb, top sirloin of beef, pork loins, cookies and brownies, along with breakfasts of eggs, bacon, ham, cocktail smokies, Spam and Vienna and Portuguese sausages, were intended for the inmates' consumption. Inmates normally are fed packaged meals that require only heating.

Commissioners apparently accepted Owens' version of events, a story that a jury may find hard to swallow. Owens told a fellow officer that he authorized the food purchases for his colleagues to boost morale at the receiving desk, according to city Deputy Prosecutor Randal Lee.

Public expenditures for court costs of police officers may be justified in cases where the officers were indisputably following orders or carrying out department policy that itself is alleged to be illegal. In other cases, the presumption of innocence should not extend to tax dollars paying the defense bill.

A grand jury last August returned the felony indictments against Owens and Fajardo, finding probable cause that they had illegally ordered the fancy meals at public expense. The content of the indictments should have precluded this outrageous level of double dipping.



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Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, Editor 529-4791; fbridgewater@starbulletin.com
Michael Rovner,
Assistant Editor 529-4768; mrovner@starbulletin.com
Lucy Young-Oda, Assistant Editor 529-4762; lyoungoda@starbulletin.com

Mary Poole, Editorial Page Editor, 529-4790; mpoole@starbulletin.com
John Flanagan, Contributing Editor 294-3533; jflanagan@starbulletin.com

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