'Broken Trust' echoes loudly in isle politics
The story of Bishop Estate
could be the scandal that keeps on giving.
When the Star-Bulletin published the lengthy complaint from five prominent community leaders in 1997, it synthesized the feelings of embarrassment and outrage felt by many who had watched the $10 billion charitable trust exploited as a political playground.
The article detailed how the state's top governmental and judicial leadership -- the Supreme Court and Office of the Governor -- were bound in a web of winks and nods to appoint politicians to the trust, which at the time was the biggest private landowner in Hawaii. It made local politics feudal as it created a dependent class of politicians hoping to be rewarded with a trustee's title, worth a million dollars a year.
As Bishop Estate's wealth grew and the trustees' pay swelled, the estate became the elephant in the living room that Hawaii's politicians wouldn't mention. The media would launch series after series about the trust and its beneficiary, Kamehameha Schools, while a few in the Legislature attempted to throttle back the power, money and patronage. At the time, it seemed that being linked to the estate was a pass to the bank and the ballot box as the voting public just didn't seem to care.
Not much happened until the story echoed through not just the local papers, but also the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today and "60 Minutes."
In one sense it led to the downfall of a group of state senators who had voted against the confirmation of Margery Bronster, the former attorney general who was investigating the case. The article, dubbed "Broken Trust," forever linked trustees Richard Wong and Henry Peters with the politics of spoils as they became $1 million-a-year political barons for the estate.
The net also caught former state Sen. Milton Holt, who was running estate legislation through the Capitol while using estate charge cards for hostess bars and trips to Las Vegas.
Interestingly, the prime mover behind the "Broken Trust" commentary, Randy Roth, University of Hawaii law professor, former bar association president and former adviser to Gov. Linda Lingle, says thousands of pages of documents relating to the investigation are still sealed. Some have been put away by the attorney general and some sealed by the courts. Roth is hoping that pressure applied to both the courts and the AG will make available more information.
All this could play a part in the race between U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka and U.S. Rep. Ed Case in September's Democratic senatorial primary. Akaka has been sympathetic to the trustees, at one time saying they deserved more money. Case, on the other hand, led a legislative fight to restrict the trustees' salaries.
At a public panel discussion on the old scandal last week, Case asked, "Are there more 'Broken Trusts' out there?"
It is the kind of question that is likely to be rephrased during the coming campaign.
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at email@example.com