Criminal past should be disclosed, politicians say
Election victory often relies on where and how facts come out
Hawaii lawmakers are facing increased scrutiny about their pasts -- and what they should disclose to their constituents -- now that the criminal convictions of two legislators have been revealed.
At Gov. Linda Lingle's urging last Monday, Rep. Galen Fox (R, Waikiki-Ala Moana) announced that he would resign because he was convicted in a California federal court of sexually molesting a 27-year-old female passenger on a flight to Los Angeles in December. Democrats blasted both Fox and Lingle for not revealing the arrest earlier.
In September, Lingle appointed businesswoman Bev Harbin to the seat of Rep. Ken Hiraki, who left office for the private sector. Shortly afterward, it was revealed that Harbin had failed to tell Lingle about three criminal misdemeanor convictions for passing bad checks, and that she owed $123,000 in back taxes.
Both cases have raised questions about how -- and when -- elected officials should handle disclosure of past legal problems.
Lingle said she thinks all officeholders convicted of a serious offense, even if it is a misdemeanor, should resign. Lingle herself was convicted of criminal contempt of court in 1979 after a bench warrant was issued for her to appear in court on Molokai.
The governor declined to answer questions about that conviction on Friday, but said in a written statement that the matter involved an expired safety sticker on her car, and she was required to pay a $25 fine.
"I do feel bad that I did not address this (safety sticker issue) in a timely manner," her statement said.
Lingle said her misdemeanor conviction had been publicly raised "during my two campaigns for mayor (on Maui) and two campaigns for governor."
For politicians, deciding how much of their background should be revealed is difficult, political analysts say.
Neal Milner, a University of Hawaii political scientist, said the problem is "ethically murky."
"Whatever the ethical issues are, politics outweighs them," he said. "The politics are clearer than the ethics of it."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, agreed.
"Elected officials are hired and fired by their constituents and no one else. So public opinion really matters in this case," said Sabato, who has been following the Fox case.
"If the legislator is truly guilty of the offense, it is hard to believe that his constituents won't demand his resignation, or fire him at the next available opportunity by voting him out of office," Sabato said.
Some politicians have taken the offensive.
In 2002, for instance, Mark Jernigan, a Kona businessman, took out newspaper ads to say he had a criminal drug conviction and wanted to know if that would disqualify him from running for office.
"I got nothing but favorable feedback. People said they would vote for me because I was so honest and upright about what happened to me," Jernigan said in an interview last week.
"It was a pretty hard thing to do. It was something in my past I am not proud of, but I felt so strong about running for office, it was the only way I could run, was to bring it up ahead of time so it didn't look like it was something I was running from," said Jernigan, who won that election but lost in 2004.
Others convicted of crimes have offered to resign and then changed their mind. Former Rep. Noburo Yonamine had been convicted of driving while intoxicated, and said he would step down at the end of the 2001 legislative session. Then he decided to run for re-election and lost.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano said Yonamine made a mistake when he changed his mind.
"Noboru had a hard time doing the right thing after he said he would resign, so the people did it for him and knocked him out of office," Cayetano said.
Officeholders generally expect to be judged by the public and realize that their past can be brought up and questioned.
"A politician's past is fair game. I have made mistakes in my life, but I am willing to stand up and live by them," said Sen. Fred Hemmings.
"When you stand for public office, your life becomes an open book," said Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo).
Full disclosure of any criminal background should be made, according to Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua). "Let the public decide whether or not it is a disqualifying criteria to hold office."
Politicians may feel something in the past is not significant, but if the public asks, Hanabusa said, candidates or officeholders should respond.
"If someone asks you, you should answer whatever the question is," Hanabusa said.
A person's record will follow them, acknowledged Cayetano, who as a youngster had a minor scrape with the law.
"Before I took the bar exam, I had to explain to the Supreme Court some of the things I did as a kid," Cayetano said.
But interwoven throughout the issue of disclosure is the principle of due process, he said.
"I can't fault the governor for waiting (to publicly discuss the Fox conviction)," Cayetano said. "Galen was entitled to due process. What she did was the appropriate thing."
How to remain honest with your voters and still get elected is a difficult question, said Sens. Les Ihara (D, Palolo-Kapahulu) and Bob Bunda (D, Kaena-Wahiawa-Pupukea).
"I have no idea what would be the procedure. I don't think there is a law regarding it, but I think they should tell, at some point," Bunda said.
If an incumbent is convicted, he or she should say something, Bunda said, but precisely how is not clear.
"I think they should at least inform their constituents, but I would say after the proceedings," Bunda said.
Ihara added that the political process doesn't always include a rigorous examination by the opposition, because politicians are afraid of appearing to run a negative campaign.
"If you avoid the community forums, how would anyone know about it? I think the public has a right to know, but to rely on the opponent to bring it up is asking a lot," Ihara said.
Politicians agree that elected officials who do not answer questions about their past risk their political future.
"The political problem is, if you don't say anything, and you guys (news media) find out about it, then it becomes an issue and people will say you should have said something," Cayetano warned.
1979 conviction resurfaces after Lingle urges others to resign
In 1979, before she ever ran for office, Linda Lingle was convicted of criminal contempt of court on Molokai.
Lingle, at the time a 26-year-old publisher of the Molokai Free Press, was served a bench warrant on Nov. 27, 1979. She appeared in District Court on Dec. 11, 1979, and was found guilty of criminal contempt of court.
The crime was listed as a misdemeanor, and Lingle was fined $25.
Earlier this week, Lingle said that people serving in public office who are convicted in state or federal court should resign. She declined to say if resignation should be for all crimes, explaining that the circumstances of each case had to be considered.
In a written statement issued after her office was asked about the conviction on Friday, Lingle said, "This matter is 26 years old and has been publicly raised several times, including during my two campaigns for mayor and two campaigns for governor."
The incident stemmed from an expired safety sticker, Lingle said.
"I was unaware that the safety sticker had expired and that a notice had been sent for me to appear in court," she said.
Lingle came to Hawaii from California in 1975 after graduating from California State University at Northridge. She served from 1975 to 1976 as a public information officer for the Hawaii Teamsters and Hotel Workers.
In 1976 she moved to Molokai and founded a community newspaper, the Molokai Free Press. She was first elected to the Maui County Council in 1980 and served for 10 years, then was elected mayor of Maui for two terms. The Republican was elected governor in 2002.