Wednesday, December 26, 2001

UH lawsuit should
be open to public

The issue: The University of Hawaii has
reached a secret settlement of a suit brought
by one of its former genetic researchers

CONFIDENTIAL settlement of lawsuits has become commonplace in the U.S. judicial system, ostensibly allowing litigants to save face. Secrecy should have no place in the resolution of suits involving public tax dollars, but the University of Hawaii seeks to keep the wraps on the settlement of a suit over rights to a cloning technique developed at the Manoa campus. The university should be required to justify the sensitivity of any aspect of the settlement in order for it to remain concealed.

University lawyers appear to have tried to preempt the process of determining public access by entering into the confidentiality agreement without consulting the state Office of Information Practices, which administers Hawaii's open records law. Allowing this lawsuit to remain sealed would only encourage such a tactic as a method of assuring secrecy in future settlements.

An agreement to confidentiality unfortunately has become routine in bringing most civil lawsuits to an end, saving face for the participants but also allowing consumer frauds to continue and unsafe products to remain in the marketplace. Although too often abused, confidential agreements are appropriate in narrow areas such as privacy, a company's proprietary rights and a person's intellectual property rights.

Anthony Perry, a former researcher at UH, sued the university for granting a company licensing rights to a technology that Perry had developed for cloning mice. Perry maintained in the suit that the licensing amounted to theft of his intellectual property. UH countersued, accusing Perry of divulging confidential information about laboratory work. The countersuit also named City Councilman John Henry Felix, Perry's business partner.

The university's Board of Regents approved the settlement with Perry after discussing it in a closed session. Walter Kirimitsu, UH's general counsel and senior vice president for legal affairs, said all sides of the suit agreed that the settlement should be confidential.

Kirimitsu neglected to mention one side: the public, which continues to be kept in the dark. While the law requiring public documents to be open allows exceptions, such as the need to prevent frustration of legitimate government purposes, it should not be construed as allowing an entire settlement to be kept secret.

After the Star-Bulletin requested access to the settlement, the Office of Information Practices gave the university a deadline of Jan. 7 to explain why it should be kept secret. The answer should not be that disclosure would be a violation of the settlement agreement. Kirimitsu should have thought about that before entering into an agreement that violated the state's open-records law.

Tax credit for travel
a solid proposal

The issue: Hawaii Rep. Patsy
Mink's bill would give consumers
a deduction for taking a trip

AS the state's tourism industry continues to struggle, U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink's proposal to allow a tax deduction for travel should receive the consideration of her colleagues and support from Hawaii's political and industry leaders. With the disagreement over an economic stimulus package likely to continue in Congress next year, Mink's bill as a separate measure could hold out some hope for Hawaii.

Hotels across the state have posted significant decreases in occupancy since the Sept. 11 attacks. October saw a drop of more than 20 percent from the same period last year. That reflects the corresponding decrease in the number of tourists traveling to the islands, which last month was down 27 percent.

The nation's airlines have received direct help from the federal government to the tune of $15 billion in aid and loan guarantees. However, short of television ads in which President Bush exhorts Americans to travel, hotels and other tourism-related businesses have received little help.

The loss of nearly 500,000 jobs in hotels, tour operations and restaurants nationwide is being felt acutely in tourism-dependent economies like Hawaii, Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco. Travel researchers are estimating that the hotel industry in the United States will lose about $3.5 billion in room revenues this year, with profits likely to drop 27 percent. Those numbers should be substantial enough to cause concern on Capitol Hill.

Providing aid similar to that for the airlines may cause problems because of the diversity of the tourism and hotel industries. Hotels, for example, vary from small, single-owner motels to multinational corporations.

Mink's bill would sidestep that complication. The measure would allow a tax deduction for consumers who travel at least 500 miles from home. This would benefit Hawaii's industry and other visitor-attractive areas without involving an intricate formula. A similar bill has come from Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican who proposes a $500 tax credit for personal travel expenses during a prescribed period of time. Industry lobbyists had pushed for credits of up to $1,000, but the price tag for the government would have been $4 billion. A more modest deduction of perhaps up to $200 could be enough of an incentive for people to travel.

Experts are predicting that the travel industry will regain its footing by 2003. That may be soon enough for Congress, but not soon enough for Hawaii. For the unemployed and businesses on the edge, a year's wait may be too long.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

Richard Halloran, editorial page director, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, contributing editor 294-3533;

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