Is ethics reform dead?
An ethical and honest government that the people trust is the fundamental foundation of a democracy. Politicians can always speak about new visions and grand plans for major projects. But in a representative government, if the public does not trust the government, all of these projects and plans are useless. That's why a strong ethics code is so important.
Unfortunately, violation of the public's trust is a reality in Hawaii. On Oahu, two City Council members were sent to prison recently for improper behavior. A current Council member has been widely criticized for running a business to obtain building permits using his Council office. The Honolulu Liquor Commission was the subject of a wide-ranging FBI probe that led to multiple corruption convictions.
At the state level, several members of the Legislature have been sent to prison for criminal behavior ranging from improper use of office facilities to, ironically, trying to sell pardons.
Both the federal and state governments have strong ethics enforcement codes. Federal and state ethics agencies can sanction individuals who violate their respective ethics codes. These basic powers given to the federal ethics boards and the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, however, are denied to the county ethics commissions.
Under state law, meant for enforcement of the county building codes, the counties are prohibited from issuing fines against anyone unless the county first issues a letter to the violator requesting that the illegal activity stop. Then the counties must wait 30 days and see if the violator is continuing the illegal behavior. Only then may the counties issue a fine. This scheme might work for enforcing a building code violation but it makes no sense for the enforcement of the county ethics codes.
Imagine, if a government official openly takes a bribe, under Hawaii state law, the county ethics commission must first issue a letter respectfully asking the official to stop taking bribes! What is even more absurd, the county ethics commission must then wait a month. Only if the government official continues the unethical behavior for 30 days may the ethics commission finally issue a fine. This is silly and should be changed.
There is no good reason to give the Hawaii State Ethics Commission the power to issue fines for ethics code violations but deny this same power to the respective county ethics commissions.
Unfortunately, a measure to give the county ethics bodies the power to immediately issue a fine when a violation of an ethics code is discovered has stalled in the Legislature. The Senate Intergovernmental Affairs Committee chairman recently deferred and effectively killed this ethics reform measure in the state Senate. At least ethics reform got a hearing in the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee chairman has refused to even grant a hearing to the ethics reform bill. The only entity that has opposed ethics reform is the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
Politicians always use the words "trust" and "integrity" to describe their politics. A strong government ethics code is essential for these words to mean something. Giving the county ethics bodies the same powers as the state and federal ethics agencies makes sense. Killing an ethics reform measure to give teeth to county ethics enforcement is nonsensical and undermines those basic values of trust and integrity in our government.
Charles K. Djou represents District IV (Waikiki, East Honolulu) on the Honolulu City Council. He is the chairman of the Council's Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.