School board tussles with ethics
Members have asked a state panel to rule on spending by the charter school office
Is it OK for a top charter school official to spend $97 in taxpayer money to eat out with a Board of Education member?
That's just one question the school board will have for the state Ethics Commission after an audit raised concerns about past spending and hiring practices by the Charter School Administrative Office.
Board members voted Thursday to seek an opinion from the commission about $41,611 in state money that the charter office spent on meals during conferences, meetings and three farewell parties between September 2004 and Jan. 12.
Among them is a $97.07 tab for a lunch between past board member Paul Vierling and Jim Shon, the former head of the Charter School Administrative Office, on Jan. 24, 2006.
"Is it appropriate to use state funds for these purposes?" asked board member Garrett Toguchi. "Because the charter school executive director is hired by the Board of Education, there's a question about the propriety of paying for your bosses' lunch."
Messages left yesterday for Vierling were not returned. Former state House member Shon, who has denied misspending money, could not be reached.
The audit released this year found the office lacked cash disbursement controls for travel and meals. It questioned travel stipends of $150 to school administrators for airfare and rental cars during neighbor island conferences and $382.44 to fly two members of the Hawaii Charter School Network for a meeting on Oahu.
Maunalei Love, who took over for Shon in September after Shon was fired as interim director of the charter office, noted the expenses covered 2 1/2 years in which charter representatives attended five conferences and various meetings.
"It's ridiculous. We were having bentos," she said. "It sounds like a lot but it really wasn't ... It is not like we were having steak and lobster."
Love said she believes the lunch for Shon and Vierling was legitimate because they talked about charter school issues.
"It was a little bit high," she said. "But I'm not sure if it was only the two of them."
Love said her office now requires workers to write detailed information about their expenses on the receipts.
While he couldn't comment on the school board's complaint, Daniel Mollway, Ethics Commission executive director, said laws can be broken when employees give gifts to their supervisors in return of favors.
"That may have an appearance that they (gifts) were given to influence a reward or official action, which might be construed as keeping one employed," he said. "That would be a legitimate charge to file."
Board member Breene Harimoto opposed the ethics review because the board already told the charter office to avoid high travel and meal costs.
"We are the boss, and all we do is tell them, 'Hey cut that out. We don't like it, stop it.'" he said. "And that's the end of it. We move on."
But board Chairwoman Karen Knudsen said an opinion by the commission will help clarify the issue.
"It can help us in the future, because it is something that happened under our watch and with our people," she said.