By David Shapiro

Saturday, July 12, 1997

Aki should leave
his seat in the Senate

Sen. James Aki's gambling case goes to the heart of the political and ethical rot that is bringing Hawaii down.

After long proclaiming his innocence on two felony charges of promoting illegal gambling on his Nanakuli property, Aki this week pleaded no contest to the charges.

It's not that the senator found religion and accepted responsibility for his criminal actions. He's still claiming innocence, but says he decided not to contest the charges in order to put the matter behind him. It's part of a convoluted scheme to evade the consequences of his crimes and save his Senate seat.

If Circuit Judge Wilfred Watanabe accepts Aki's plea and sentences him, state law requires that Aki leave public office. Aki wants the judge to defer acceptance of his plea so there is no sentence and he can remain in the Senate.

We can only hope that Watanabe will see through the transparent manipulations of a delusional politician and decline to go out of his way to keep a felon in the Senate.

Aki embodies the sleazy ethics that too many of our political leaders live by. If you're guilty, the honorable thing to do is to take your punishment without whining. If you're innocent, you plead not guilty and fight the charges. The least honorable thing to do is to enter a weasel plea that sort of admits guilt, continue to claim innocence and try to finesse the judicial system to dodge punishment.

But why shouldn't Aki think he can get away with it? His fellow senators and constituents have always been forgiving of his transgressions. He was re-elected by a wide margin despite the gambling charges. Several fellow senators greeted news of his no-contest plea with comments about what a nice guy and good legislator he is. He's such a good legislator that he helped write gambling legislation without noticing that it's illegal to allow gambling operations on his property.

Before the gambling trouble, Aki skated away from bribery charges involving the convention center.

Aki, then Senate president, admitted that he approached tycoon Sukarman Sukamto about developing his Nanakuli property at the same time Sukamto was lobbying the Senate to buy his Aloha Motors parcel for the convention center. Aki said he thought it was OK because he approached Sukamto as a private businessman, not as Senate president.

The Ethics Commission found insufficient evidence that actual bribery occurred. Bribery aside, commissioners failed to even nail Aki for the clear conflict of interest in which he tried to use his public office for private gain. Why would an international operator like Sukamto have any interest in Aki's piddling piece of property if it wasn't to curry favor with the Senate president on a more lucrative matter?

The Ethics Commission let Aki off with a wimpy advisory opinion about mixing private and public business. He claimed vindication.

It comes down to this: How are we ever going to solve our state's pressing problems if we don't hold public officials to account for what they do?

No matter how nice a person is, he doesn't belong in the Legislature if he allows illegal gambling on his property. When we entrust a lawmaker to deal with a developer on an key matter that ultimately will cost taxpayers $136 million, we want him driving a hard bargain for the state -- not using his leverage to cut himself a private deal on the side.

If we continue to tolerate the behavior of public officials like James Aki, we have no right to complain about the foul odors on the slippery ride down the toilet.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at
Volcanic Ash runs every Saturday in the Star-Bulletin.

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