By Rob Perez
Lingle threatens trust by
tapping private funding
Gov. Linda Lingle has unveiled a lot of smart, common-sense proposals since assuming the state's top job.
This isn't one of them.
Her idea of tapping the private sector to help pay the salary of a new Cabinet-level tourism czar is fraught with ethical peril.
If ever there was a formula for creating conflicts of interest, this is it.
Mixing public and private funding to pay for a top-level government liaison to the state's No. 1 industry raises so many questions about undue outside influence that the proposal should be snuffed out as quickly as a lobby fire in a Waikiki hotel.
It's amazing the idea has gotten this far, especially given that the main thrust of Lingle's campaign was to restore trust in state government.
This isn't how you accomplish that.
"On its face, it's not an inherently bad thing," said Ben Bycel, the Washington, D.C.-based vice president of Common Cause, the government watchdog group. "But it has so many possibilities for intentional or unintentional misuse. ... A politician who ran on that (trust issue) ought to think twice about doing it."
Lingle says the state, given its tough fiscal position, can't afford to pay the salary needed to attract a top candidate from the tourism sector. So her administration has looked to industry trade associations to pitch in.
Lingle believes she will have to offer at least $150,000 and as much as $200,000 to lure a qualified candidate, and she expects the associations -- she has had discussions with two -- to provide the majority of that funding.
The governor insists there will be no conflict. "I think that's based on a false premise," she said.
No conflict will exist because the person's job will be to advocate for the industry, providing such a perspective when her Cabinet gathers to discuss policy, Lingle said.
"This gives the industry a person who is there at the table," she said.
Asked how the advocate would deal with matters in which the state's interests conflicted with those of the industry, Lingle said she didn't think that would be an issue. "I don't see it as different interests."
Still, Lingle said she will take steps to minimize even the appearance of a conflict. That's why she isn't asking individual companies to contribute to the wage pot. Using only associations that represent multiple businesses will help diffuse conflict concerns, Lingle said.
No matter how many safeguards are in place, however, the taint will always be there. A skeptical public will always wonder what the groups get in return for paying the lion's share of the czar's salary.
"There isn't an industry around that isn't going to want something back," said Bycel, former head of the Los Angeles ethics commission. "That's just human nature."
The potential conflicts and ethical pitfalls can take many forms.
If several associations contribute to the executive's salary, do their interests get greater attention than the interests of other tourism groups?
And if the tourism industry gets a voice in Lingle's inner circle of advisers, what about other equally important constituencies? Why should organized labor, for instance, not be afforded the same opportunity if it's willing to cough up money for a union czar? How about a teachers' czar? Don't the people who shape our children's education deserve a seat at the table?
You can see where this can lead. People start believing that access to the governor's office is like a commodity for sale, favoring those with deep pockets.
Here's another rub. If the tourism czar's main responsibility is to ensure that the industry's voice is heard, people already are paid to do that job. They're called lobbyists. And taxpayers don't have to shoulder any of the lobbyists' salaries.
The Republican governor's proposal already is getting a chilly reception from one key member of the Democrat-controlled Legislature and could lead to a showdown between the two branches of government.
Although the governor believes she can hire the czar without getting legislative approval, Rep. Scott Saiki (D-Moiliili), the House majority leader, disagrees.
Because the position would be new and would involve spending state funds, the Legislature has to authorize it, Saiki said.
Saiki also raised questions about the precedent that would be set using public and private funds for a state official's salary.
"I definitely think there's a conflict of interest," Saiki said.
Daniel Mollway, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, wondered whether existing state law would even permit such an arrangement.
"It creates an awful lot of questions under a lot of provisions of the law," Mollway said.
The notion of tapping the private sector to help pay a top executive's wage is not new to state government.
As far back as the mid-1980s, the University of Hawaii proposed using private donors to boost the salary of its president.
Tim Farr, then-chairman of the Ethics Commission, pooh-poohed the idea when it was considered by the Legislature in 1986.
"Once private funds are accepted, it seems certain that the questions of possible outside influence or pressure will be ever present in the public's mind," Farr testified. "When those who donate to the president's salary do business with the University of Hawaii or are otherwise involved with the university, the integrity of university decisions will invariably be subject to question."
The Legislature killed the bill, believing it would be bad public policy. The policy would be just as bad today.
If the tourism czar is a position worth having, Lingle needs to find state funds to pay for it.
Otherwise, her pledge to restore the public's trust in government will seem a bit hollow.
Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at: email@example.com.