Barring fresh revelations, a phone call between Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and University of Hawaii President M.R.C. Greenwood last spring appears to be a she-said, she-said dispute.

As reported by local news outlets this week, Kim called Greenwood to find out about the status of the law school application of Kim’s son.

Greenwood alleged that Kim threatened to hold hearings on the law school, according to Hawaii News Now: “And I think her exact words were; ‘If I don’t get the exact answers I’m expecting, you can expect to be answering these questions in front of the legislature next year. And I said whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s just find out what’s going on here.”

Kim denied that she placed any pressure on Greenwood and said her inquiry was that of a concerned mother.

The news of the phone call itself came in an unusual commercial-free, half-hour special on HNN Monday, in which Greenwood participated in “an exclusive one-on-one interview that Dr. Greenwood says will be her first and last.”

Even if the Senate president did not exert pressure on the university president, Kim may have violated the State Ethics Code and the Senate’s own rules with just the phone call itself.

‘Unwarranted Privileges’

The State Ethics Code, also known as Chapter 84, includes this section on fair treatment:

No legislator or employee shall use or attempt to use the legislator’s or employee’s official position to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts, or treatment, for oneself or others. …

Oahu blogger Ian Lind, a Civil Beat contributor whose wife is a UH professor, mentioned the fair treatment section in his blog Wednesday.

“It seems to me the state ethics code would apply to this situation, if Greenwood’s allegations are true,” he wrote.

Lind raises a number of questions he believes are “relevant in evaluating this as an ethics matter.”

Meanwhile, the Rules of the Senate spell out standards of conduct for members. “To the greatest extent reasonably possible,” it reads, members should:

(A) Refrain from allowing family, social, business, or other relationships to unduly influence the member’s legislative conduct or judgment. …

(G) Refrain from using, or permitting the use of, the privileges and prestige of their public office to derive undue personal, professional, or financial benefits for themselves, members of their families, or others with whom they maintain personal, business, or professional relationships.

Civil Beat tried to learn more from Greenwood about her call with Kim.

Does Greenwood believe Kim’s call may represent an ethical violation? Does Greenwood usually field calls from other “concerned mothers,” ones who don’t happen to be powerful members of the Hawaii Senate?

Gregory Yamamoto

MRC Greenwood and Neil Abercrombie, 2011.

In response to our inquiry, university spokeswoman Lynne Waters said, “President Greenwood stands by her statements made to Hawaii News Now and has nothing further to say on this issue.”

A Senate spokeswoman said “No, Senate President does not believe she violated the ethics code or Senate rules because first, she called from home, and second, she was checking on the status of the application as a concerned mother after the acceptance letters were already being sent out.”

State Ethics Director Les Kondo declined comment on the Kim-Greenwood matter.

It’s worth noting that when the phone call in question occured, in spring 2012, Kim was chairwoman of the Senate’s Tourism Committee. That summer, the news of the botched Stevie Wonder concert for UH Athletics broke, leading to the Senate’s special investigation into the university and board of regents that fall.

Kim chaired the marathon hearings. Among many things, the committee found that UH officials failed to follow their own policies.

In January, Kim’s colleagues voted her Senate president following the resignation of Shan Tsutsui, who became lieutenant governor. Greenwood announced this month that she will resign in September, nearly two years before the end of her term. She cited personal and health issues as the reason.

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