UPDATED 6/16/2016: The longtime executive director of the city agency responsible for ethics enforcement resigned Wednesday.

Chuck Totto said he disagreed with the direction being taken by the City and County of Honolulu Ethics Commission, to which he reported. He also cited difficulties working with the administration of Mayor Kirk Caldwell, something he said he had not experienced under previous mayors.

After Totto emerged from a closed-door meeting with the commissioners to evaluate his job performance, reporters asked him to elaborate on his reasons for leaving. Totto said that it was difficult for his office to do its work efficiently under micromanagement from superiors. Decisions made by the commission had left “a number of our complaint investigations in limbo,” he said.

And, while he avoided directly blaming Caldwell for his departure, Totto said his office had been battling with the administration for three years, particularly over issues of staffing and budgeting.

Ethics Commission Chuck Totto1. 20 april 2016.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto, seen here in April, has been at odds with the Caldwell administration for three years.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There is a certain level of frustration with that,” he said. “I understand that it is government and government can’t do everything. It doesn’t have the funds to do everything. But when the managing director took away $6,000 to do mandatory ethics for all city employees, to me that was just like — in other words, they don’t care.”

Ethics Commission Chair Victoria Marks referred reporters to the commission’s press release on Totto’s resignation (reproduced below), which said in part, “We thank Chuck for all his years of dedicated public service and his stalwart efforts to educate the employees of the City and County of Honolulu about ethics. He brought a passion and unwavering dedication to the Ethics Commission. His contributions will reverberate for years to come. We wish him and his family well.”

Marks said the commission would do its best to replace Totto and his staff as quickly as it can.

“I think the commission is still open and running, and we will be taking the next step to ensure that we fill the existing vacancies,” she said. “We are moving forward.”

Totto’s lawyer, Peter Carlisle, said an agreement was reached with the commission regarding a financial settlement, but he did not provide a specific dollar figure.

“Nothing particularly impressive, I would say,” said Carlisle, who preceded Caldwell as mayor and is running this year in an attempt to take the job back.

List Of Accomplishments

Totto served as executive director since 2000, having previously worked as the state utilities consumer advocate and as an attorney in the state Office of Consumer Protection.

The commission took the unusual step of attaching an 11-page list of Totto’s accomplishments (posted below).

They ranged from finding former Councilwoman Rene Mansho guilty in 2000 of misusing city resources for political purposes (Mansho spent a year in jail), to reaching an $8,100 settlement in 2015 with former Councilman Nestor Garcia for accepting unlawful gifts from lobbyists and failing to disclose conflicts of interest.

The list of accomplishments included none from this year, a time during which Totto has been subjected to a gag order, a 30-day suspension and a requirement to document his day in six-minute intervals.

As Civil Beat reported earlier this week, Totto has taken on a lot of influential people in Hawaii politics, something that likely earned him many enemies.

Former Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, city spokesperson Andrew Pereira, Ethics Director Chuck Totto and community activist Natalie Iwasa at the Honolulu Ethics Commission Wednesday.

From left, former Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, city spokesperson Andrew Pereira, Ethics Director Chuck Totto and community activist Natalie Iwasa at the Honolulu Ethics Commission on Wednesday.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

“Speaking truth to power is never easy,” Totto said Wednesday, adding: “Over the years, if you are focused on potential unethical conduct of the powers that be, over time it can make it more difficult to have credibility to ask for a larger budget.”

Totto said he had not experienced difficulty working with previous mayors Carlisle and Mufi Hannemann, even though he sometimes disagreed with them. He pointed to a meeting in February 2013 with Caldwell’s then-managing director, Ember Shinn, shortly after the mayor was sworn in. That meeting seemed to signal a shift.

“Over the years, if you are focused on potential unethical conduct of the powers that be, over time it can make it more difficult to have credibility to ask for a larger budget.” — Chuck Totto

“She said that it had been suggested to her that I should be investigated by the Attorney General’s Office, which took me aback,” he said. “I’ve never had those kinds of comments from anybody in city government. And to hear that from the managing director was a shock. And I said, ‘What about?’ And she didn’t respond. And I said, ‘Well, go ahead. And I’m going to make it public.’”

He concluded, “Perhaps that’s where we got off on the wrong foot.”

Totto also said Shinn ensured that his pay and that of his associate legal counsel were lower than the pay of other city attorneys.

“I can’t read her mind, I don’t know what her intent was, but that happened also,” he said of Shinn. “So, when you say, ‘Do I blame the Caldwell administration for forcing me out or something?’ No. But there have been many, many problems dealing with the Caldwell administration.”

In Totto’s view, the mayor had other priorities than helping the ethics office.

“All I can say is, after being here 13 years, it was the first time that a managing director and the Corporation Counsel started to really focus on what we were doing, all the way down to whether we could, you know, buy a GPS tracking device. Or just unilaterally changing our budget, and that kind of thing. It just hadn’t happened before.”

UPDATE:

Corporation Counsel Donna Leong issued this response late Wednesday in response to Totto’s remarks:

Since at least 2006, the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services and the Department of the Corporation Counsel have carefully reviewed and processed the Ethics Commission’s budget because of their administrative responsibilities mandated by the Revised Charter of Honolulu.

The careful fiscal review of the Ethics Commission’s budget did NOT start with the current administration.

In 2006, Chuck Totto, as the Ethics Commission Executive Director and Legal Counsel, the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services, and the Department of the Corporation Counsel, discussed a form of Memorandum of Understanding that would address the administrative relationship between the Department of the Corporation Counsel and the Ethics Commission and, in particular, the process for the administrative review of the annual budget for the Ethics Commission.

The minutes of the Ethics Commission for its meetings of September 19, 2006 and October 31, 2006, reflect not only that the issue is not a new one but also that, while the Department of the Corporation Counsel and Mr. Totto agreed on a form of the MOU, the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services did not agree to the form of the MOU.

The discussions on the development of an annual budget between the city administration, including the Department of the Corporation Counsel, and its administratively attached Commission, reflect responsible and prudent fiscal oversight of the limited fiscal resources of the city. All city agencies are subject to high scrutiny of their budget requests at various levels. For executive branch agencies, that scrutiny includes approval of the Office of the Managing Director and the City Council, as well as the public through testimony in the legislative process for adoption of the annual budget.

In 2014, Mr. Totto requested approval to purchase a GPS system. In response, I advised that I would authorize payment of the invoice but that certain required approvals were required, including advance consultation by the affected department with the applicable union about the general concept of using the GPS system. I subsequently advised Mr. Totto that funding would be approved and that it was up to him to confer with the department with regard to the consultation with the union. No invoice to purchase the GPS system was received from Mr. Totto.

Many agencies are experiencing heavy workloads with new added responsibilities and reduced personnel; these fiscal realities are not unique to the Ethics Commission. The budget directive through several fiscal years that apply to all executive branch agencies restrict the increases in the annual budget and has been implemented by the city administration on all city departments, including the Department of the Corporation Counsel, and is the means by which the administration has sought to responsibly and prudently manage each fiscal year’s budget.

Commissioners Defended

Totto acknowledged that his staff was given two more positions to do its work. But he also said there had been a huge drop off in the number of cases the commission was hearing. It typically averages around 90 cases a year. Currently, there are only 48.

Totto said he is concerned about the future of ethics investigations in Honolulu.

“I think the commission is going to have a real task ahead of it to put together staff that can handle those, a knowledgeable staff, that can handle all the issues that we do, besides the training and giving advice, and doing complaint investigations,” he said. “They may have some better approach than I’ve had, but I’ve tried my damnedest and it’s very hard to do that. I really wish them luck, because this is a very, very important agency for city government.”

“Do people trust government to self-police? No. Not at this point.” — Chuck Totto

Carlisle called his client’s resignation “an unfortunate end to a career devoted to demanding ethics in city government.”

Other commissioners praised Totto’s work, including Michael Lilly, who helped craft a final draft of Totto’s personnel evaluation. Lilly also categorically called “false” a June 13 Civil Beat article that “sort of insinuated” that the three commissioners appointed by Caldwell “might have been put on this commission for some ulterior motive.”

Lilly, a former attorney general, said the three members — all former judges — “have the highest reputation for integrity and morals of anyone I know. And they would not be a party to anything other than to do the right thing as they see needs to be done.”

The judges are Marks, Riki May Amano and Allene Suemori.

Still, the end of Chuck Totto’s term on the Ethics Commission may raise questions about the degree to which integrity remains a priority for public officials.

“Government credibility just seems to get lower and lower all the time,” said Totto. “And I’ve always had this difficulty in understanding, ‘Well, if you go after somebody and you find that they’ve done something wrong, and you publicize that, the public is going to paint that with a broad brush.’ They’re going to say, ‘Well, see? That confirms my opinion of government people.’”

Totto added: “We need to go one step beyond, which is to say those people who are being unethical will get caught and they will leave city service; they will be fined, whatever is the appropriate remedy. And that’s the toughest step to get to. Do people trust government to self-police? No. Not at this point.”

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