Gathering Places


Dems say one thing,
do another on corruption

As a liberal, I am looking for a reason to vote for the Democrats. Lorraine Akiba's recent column is not it (Price of Paradise, Star-Bulletin, Aug. 18).

Akiba, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, does get one point right: Public office is a public trust that no one should violate. However, her suggestions for reducing corruption veer off course.

To begin with, Akiba suggests that there are only "a few bad apples." among Hawaii's Democrats. This linguistic formula is used by leaders around the world to minimize the scale of corruption in their organizations. Sometimes it is true, but not in Hawaii in 2002. The record requires a more gloomy conclusion.

Like Akiba, Governor Cayetano and Sen. Daniel Inouye have repeatedly and publicly stressed that corruption in Hawaii is "not a Democratic thing." But the truth is stubborn: Almost all of the state officials convicted in recent years are Democrats.

Why is that? In large part because prolonged one-party rule creates expectations and relations of a kind that coalesce into systemic corruption.

This has produced a rotten barrel, not just a few bad apples. One recent study of corruption in America finds that compared to other states, Hawaii has an "exceptionally high number of prosecutions" of public officials per 100 elected officials. Almost all of the indicted were Democrats or were appointed by Democrats. (See "Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts," Transaction Publishers, 2002).

The first step to take to reduce corruption is an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Unfortunately, Hawaii's Democratic Party seems unwilling to call this spade a spade. In fact, there is a glaring contradiction at the core of Akiba's essay. On the one hand, she believes corruption is no more than a matter of a few bad apples. On the other hand, she has written an entire essay devoted to solving this problem.

Akiba's five-point "action plan" is long on platitudes and short on substance. Her first plank, to require every state employee to sign a code of ethics as a condition of employment, is cardboard thin.

Knowledge of law and ethics is rarely a problem, here or anywhere else. Our focus should be on the institutions that create incentives for corruption, not on painless reforms of problems that do not exist. If the Democrats are serious about fighting corruption, they should rebuild the state's defective framework for contracting public works. In Hawaii, as in other places plagued by systemic corruption (Japan, Louisiana, Mexico), this is a hotbed of abuse.

Akiba's second and third proposals "to protect whistle-blowers and eliminate legal loopholes" may be more helpful, but one cannot tell from the vague platitudes in her essay. The reader can only ask: What are the loopholes? And how are whistle-blowers unprotected by our current laws?

The reader also should ask whether Democratic rhetoric about reform is consistent with Democratic practice. It is not, as Akiba's last two proposals make clear.

Her fourth suggestion is to provide the public with more access to public documents so they can better raise questions about accountability. This proposal is spot-on. The problem is that in Hawaii's Democratic Party, there is a chasm between rhetoric and reality.

To cite one example, Democratic Mayor Jeremy Harris's administration routinely resists the disclosure of information that ought to be made public. Even the City Council has had to resort to the threat of subpoenas to coerce the mayor's office into sharing information about the skyrocketing costs of developing Central Oahu Regional Park.

Akiba's final call -- to enact campaign spending reform -- also is inconsistent with what Democrats do. Akiba reminds us that in the last legislative go-round, Democrats in the House and Senate passed a measure to limit donations to public officials. However, the bill excludes lawmakers from its coverage. Talk about a loophole.

Akiba concludes by noting that "democracy is the best way to fight corruption." This is one important truth. Here is another: Information is the currency of democracy, and leaders in the Democratic Party refuse to give us our due.

Hawaii's Democrats fail to acknowledge many of the hard truths that voters need to consider. It is difficult to support a party that has such a hard time telling it like it is.

David T. Johnson is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii.

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