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Friday, June 23, 2000

Noteworthy testimony
in moving fraud trial

Bullet The issue: One city-county official became suspicious of claims for moving businesses out of Ewa Villages while another approved the claims without questioning them.

Bullet Our view: The official who blew the whistle deserves credit; the one who approved the claims failed the taxpayers.

ALTHOUGH the trial of Michael Kahapea on charges of cheating the city-county of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims related to the Ewa Villages project is still in progress, it is not too early to acknowledge some of the credit and blame in this fiasco.

Ewa Villages TrialOn the positive side is a public official who kept his eyes open and his brain working and noticed that something was amiss with the bills for moving business out of the Ewa Villages area. What's more, he exposed the scandal although he had reason to fear for his life.

The official was Michael Shiroma, a city-county housing and community development specialist. Shiroma testified that he asked a city auditor to investigate Kahapea after he discovered that Kahapea, in addition to being a city housing official, was the president of the Wailani Corp., which dealt in water purification equipment. Shiroma said he noticed that many of the officials of the trucking companies that were involved in the Ewa Villages payments appeared in government records as directors of the Wailani Corp.

SHIROMA said he first suspected that something was amiss when he reviewed some of the expense claims while filling in for another employee who was on vacation. Later he discovered that five companies appeared to be doing all the commercial moves. Moreover, the same typographical errors occurred repeatedly in the claim forms although the companies were supposed to submit claims separately. Two of the companies that submitted bids used the same address.

Shiroma said he had concerns about his personal safety after a conversation about the situation with Norman Tam, another city housing official, in 1996.

Shiroma told reporters that someone placed the lead tip of a bullet in his hand after he began asking questions about the moving expenses. Tam was subsequently indicted in the scandal but died before his case could be tried.

Here is a public servant worthy of the name, a person who tried to protect the integrity of government, even at personal risk.

On the other hand there was Randall Wong, who was the city housing division chief and deputy chief when the Ewa Villages project was in full swing. Wong testified that although he signed off on $3.2 million worth of claims for relocation operations it was not his job to confirm that the moves actually took place.

WONG said that all he did was check that the paperwork on the claims was in order. He said he trusted Kahapea and relied on his expertise. Never mind that none of the work for which payment was claimed was done! What would it have taken to make Wong suspect something was wrong?

Honolulu residents should be pleased to have Michael Shiroma working for them. As for Randall Wong...

Gun safety coalition

Bullet The issue: The House has narrowly approved a proposal aimed at weakening the coalition of cities organized by the Clinton administration to promote gun safety.

Bullet Our view: The proposal should be rejected by the Senate so the coalition can be expanded.

FIRING back after an onslaught of criticism, the National Rifle Association has demonstrated its control of the House through a vote aimed at crippling the Clinton administration's effort to improve gun safety. By 218 to 207, the House voted to bar the Department of Housing and Urban Development from expanding or administering the Communities for Safer Guns Coalition. It is up to the Senate to resist the NRA's pressure and defeat the House measure.

The administration's program resulted from an agreement by Smith & Wesson, the nation's largest gun manufacturer, to provide safety locks on its handguns within 60 days and make them child-resistant within a year. In return for the company's promise, 411 localities comprising the coalition have agreed to make Smith & Wesson guns the preferred weapon for law-enforcement agencies choosing among similar, comparably priced guns.

HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo said the vote "strikes at the heart of HUD's ability to work with local communities to reduce the awful toll of gun violence." The proposal would bar HUD from issuing press releases or having its lawyers help the coalition's participating communities. Cuomo said the vote showed the House is "firmly in the hip holster of gun lobby extremists."

Cuomo might have overstated the case. The House, by a 219-206 vote, defeated a proposal that would have forbidden HUD outright from enforcing its agreement with Smith & Wesson. However, the closeness of the two votes revealed the pressure being exerted on Congress by the gun lobby.

The NRA's attempt to paint Smith & Wesson as a renegade gun manufacturer may have the reverse effect of tarnishing other gun makers. Smith & Wesson accepted a "code of conduct" that requires it to terminate contracts with dealers who have sold guns that can be traced to "a disproportionate number" of crimes. Gun makers who continue to provide products to such dealers risk being depicted as suppliers for criminals.

The Senate usually rejects whimsical House votes on emotional issues, and this hopefully will be treated as such. The leverage applied to the firearms industry by the gun safety coalition is too important to be withdrawn by Congress.

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John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

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Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

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A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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