Colleen Hanabusa: Senate president, check. Congressional candidate, check.

Government watchdog?

In a campaign ad posted on Hanabusa’s website, an announcer says, “Colleen Hanabusa exposed waste and fraud in special education.”

Our question: Is that true? If so, where did Hanabusa expose this fraud and what, exactly, was her role?

The first question was relatively easy to answer.

According to the Hanabusa campaign, the advertisement was referring to the representative’s time as co-chair of the 2001 Joint Senate-House Investigative Committee, which looked into the state’s efforts to comply with the Felix Consent Decree.

And, for those of us who were more interested in kickball than politics during the 1990’s, here is some quick background information on the Felix Consent Decree:

In 1993, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jennifer Felix, a special-needs Maui student who sued the state for violating the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. The suit claimed that Hawaii failed to provide enough services for mentally disabled students.

In 1994, a U.S. District judge ruled in favor of Felix, saying that the state had not met its obligations to students needing special education. As a result, the Felix Consent Decree was established, setting a benchmark for how Hawaii would meet the stipulations determined in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act by the year 2000.

In 2000, a federal court found that the state had failed to comply with the consent decree.

In 2001, the state Legislature created a Joint Senate-House Investigative Committee, tasked with looking into the consent decree and how funds, as much as $1.5 billion since 1994, had been spent to improve special education services in Hawaii. Hanabusa was a co-chair with Rep. Scott Saiki on the 12-member bipartisan committee.

In December, 2001, the investigative committee released its final
report
. It said, in part, “Despite good intentions and improved services to some children with mental disabilities, the decree has also unleashed a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. The unclear requirements for compliance, the extraordinary powers granted by the federal court to certain administrators without any apparent oversight, and the court’s curtailment of the Legislature’s access to information have exacerbated troubled governmental programs already mired in fiscal mismanagement.”

The report went on to say: “The DOE’s (Department of Education) expenditures for Felix grew from $77.5 million in 1994 to $179.8 million in 2001, an increase of 132 percent. The DOH’s (Department of Health) general fund expenditures for Felix grew from $48 million in 1995 to $148.2 million in 2001, an increase of 209 percent. Since 1994, the State has spent almost $1.5 billion on Felix related programs. Even so, these numbers are understated. They do not include federal funds expended by DOH and expenditures by other agencies, such as the costs for attorneys’ fees by the Department of the Attorney General and Felix costs for the Department of Human Services. The Committee finds most disturbing the fact that no one knows how much Felix is costing the State. Neither the DOE nor DOH has held itself accountable for using public monies in a responsible and prudent manner. They are unable to accurately identify the costs of Felix.”

In 2002, after the investigation, all Hawaii public school came into compliance with the consent decree.

On May 31, 2005, the Felix lawsuit was officially terminated.

Now, with this background, it is apparent that Hanabusa was certainly involved in exposing waste in special education.

As for fraud, the committee’s final report said: “Many of the problems that the Committee uncovered could have been prevented had meaningful oversight been maintained over the DOE (Department of Education) and DOH (Department of Health). Oversight and monitoring helps to ensure that officials are responsible and accountable for their actions. The Committee believes that access to better information leads to better oversight and accountability. We found numerous instances of questionable practices, mismanagement, waste and potential fraud that could have been prevented had information about them been made public. Unfortunately, this Committee’s work has been obstructed by the federal court and interpretation of federal laws that have curtailed access to the information we need.”

So, we know that Hanabusa was co-chair of an investigative committee that did expose waste and fraud in special education in Hawaii. The only question remaining: What exactly did her role as co-chair involve.

Titles are nice, but was she as integral as her ad claims?

According to Eric Seitz, the attorney who represented Jennifer Felix in her class-action lawsuit, the answer is yes: Hanabusa did play a major role in the investigation.

“Colleen was definitely leading that whole process,” Seitz said. “And I think very responsibly, in terms of the Legislature being very, very concerned about the amount of money and the way in which the state ultimately admitted to obligations under that lawsuit.”

Government watchdog?

At least in this case, check.