[ OUR OPINION ]
Give police the job of
LIQUOR inspectors always have been susceptible to bribes, so the indictment of six Honolulu inspectors and two former supervisors accused of soliciting bribes from liquor licensees is not a great surprise. Prompt action is needed to permanently transfer their responsibilities from the Honolulu Liquor Commission to the police department, along with adequate financing.
Eight present and former city liquor inspectors have been charged with soliciting bribes from proprietors.
The eight men, comprising two-thirds of the night-shift inspectors, were indicted by a federal grand jury on 57 counts of public corruption for allegedly extorting bribes ranging from $40 to $1,080 per visit to licensed establishments, focusing on 45 hostess and strip bars. Those bars were most vulnerable to such extortion because of the requirement that they comply with various laws regarding sexual conduct of employees. Fines range up to $2,000 for a single violation.
An honest and courageous liquor inspector who notified authorities and went undercover with a hidden tape recorder gathered evidence of the transactions from October 2000 through last September. Proprietors who paid the inspectors were not charged because the payments were extorted, said U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo.
"This case represents how out of control a system can get when left unnoticed, unmonitored with no checks and balances," Kubo said. "Clearly in this case, the foxes were left to guard the hen house." He said the FBI's investigation is continuing and could result in charges against other people, including more Liquor Commission employees.
City officials should have known better. Four years ago, the City Finance Department hired Goodenow Associates Inc., a private detective agency, to look into allegations of extortion by Liquor Commission inspectors. Goodenow's ensuing year-long probe found evidence of inspectors drinking on the job and accepting food, drinks and cash as bribes from liquor establishments.
No criminal charges resulted from the Goodenow investigation, and the administrative actions that followed were inadequate. One of the eight men indicted this week had been fired by the Liquor Commission after the Goodenow investigation and later rehired.
City Councilman John Henry Felix, who is chairman of the Council committee that oversees the commission, said the inspectors may have been enticed because they are "underpaid, under-qualified and under-trained," but that is neither an acceptable excuse nor a legal defense. Liquor inspectors are paid salaries up to $51,500 a year.
The commission competently conducts its duties of issuing and revoking liquor licenses and imposing fines for violations, but it is unsuited for a dual role as a law-enforcement agency. Its largest fine ever -- $31,500 for 27 violations -- was imposed last year against a Kakaako hostess bar as the result of an investigation by city police, not commission inspectors.
Capt. Kevin Lima, head of the Honolulu Police Department's narcotics and vice division, said the department cannot adequately add liquor laws to its duties under its current budget. The shift of law-enforcement responsibilities along with city funds -- more than now budgeted, if needed -- from the Liquor Commission to the police should not be difficult.
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