A memo from the executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission accuses the Caldwell administration of stonewalling investigations about possible corruption and employee misconduct at city hall.
The Nov. 14 memo, which is part of a background document for a commission meeting, raises serious questions about transparency within the administration. The memo backs up statements Executive Director Chuck Totto made at a Nov. 4 meeting in which he complained that the city attorney’s office is trying to undermine the commission and is potentially interfering with investigations by manipulating the commission’s budget.
Administration staffers are expected to respond to Totto’s allegations during an Ethics Commission meeting Monday, but have refused to comment until then.
“Since September, Donna Leong (Corp Counsel)and other cabinet members have failed to provide responses in several significant outstanding (Ethics Commission) matters,” Totto wrote in the memo.
He calls the city attorney’s behavior “unique in my experience” and that it “delays and detracts from doing the Commission’s primary work.”
According to Totto, the administration has hindered a number of Ethics Commission investigations by refusing to produce certain information that the commission staff has asked for.
In particular, the memo says, the administration has withheld files related to its investigation into the nonprofit ORI Anuenue Hale and the millions of dollars ORI received in federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The city’s internal investigation included looking into allegations of kickbacks and buying political favors.
The Ethics Commission has been performing its own investigation to find out if any city employees or elected officials might have violated any rules.
But Totto says this isn’t the only problem he has encountered since Mayor Kirk Caldwell took office in January.
His memo details other instances in which city officials have refused to provide emails and other documentation related to ongoing ethics investigations.
In one matter, the commission wanted access to a Honolulu Fire Department employee’s computer to find out if the employee had been giving preferential treatment to a vendor.
But the request, which was sent to Managing Director Ember Shinn, Human Resources Director Carolee Kubo and IT Director Mark Wong, was largely ignored, Totto said, causing delays in several pending investigations.
The administration later denied Totto’s request, saying the city needed more “background and information” before releasing any of the documentation he was seeking.
Other investigations have suffered similar setbacks due to lack of cooperation as has the Ethics Commission’s attempt to tighten rules related to transit employees, according to Totto.
Totto says the administration has also refused to provide Ethics Commission investigators access to certain information that’s necessary to perform background checks on witnesses with histories of violence or drug abuse problems.
He called the information “critical” in assuring the personal safety of Ethics Commission staff as well as providing relevant information that might help an investigation.
“Two points are clear,” Totto wrote, “(1) we have not had these types of problems with (Corporation Counsel) or administrations in the past, and (2) the various actions and inactions combine to seriously interfere with the Commission carrying out its duties for the public.
“An overall resolution is necessary or the Commission will be placed in a position where it will have to replace cooperation with the administrative agencies with legal demands, which will benefit no one.”
Totto, who was unavailable for comment, did not elaborate on any legal measures the Ethics Commission might use to pry information out of the administration.
He said in his letter that the commission can subpoena records, which would require the administration to either release the information or provide legal reasons for why it was withholding documentation.
Totto also said his staff would discuss “other legal options” with the Commission during executive session, which is closed to the public.
The fact that Totto has aired his concerns publicly highlights the rift between the Ethics Commission and the administration.
Totto and the volunteer commission members — all of whom are appointed by the mayor — largely keep a low profile, speaking mainly through written opinions that highlight wrongdoing and detail the reasoning behind various forms of punishment.
But earlier this month Totto was outspoken about his concerns at the earlier meeting to discuss his agency’s upcoming budget, saying a tightening grip could be seen as an attempt to exert control over the Ethics Commission.
His main beef has been with Corporation Counsel, and he’s complained publicly that the city attorney’s office has begun auditing a recent contract with a new investigator and has threatened to withhold money unless he provided certain internal communications.
So far, the Caldwell administration has not explained why it is taking a seemingly adversarial position with the Ethics Commission.
But the agency’s last opinion involved tens of thousands of dollars in questionable donations to the mayor’s transition team, which helped hire his cabinet and install him in office.
Among the donors were contractors who had business before the city, lobbyists and two cabinet members. The commission found that Caldwell did nothing wrong because he didn’t know who the donors were.
Read Totto’s memo and attachments below: