Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s top lieutenant reiterated the administration’s commitment to transparency Monday, despite lingering questions about its interference in ongoing ethics investigations.
Managing Director Ember Shinn told the Honolulu Ethics Commission that the administration values the agency’s role in ferreting out corruption at city hall, but that allocating more dollars to the cause is unlikely.
The Ethics Commission has asked for more money in the coming fiscal year to hire another attorney to help investigate cases and bolster the backlogged agency’s resources.
But a current $28 million shortfall combined with a looming $156 million deficit in Fiscal Year 2015 has the administration in a panic.
“We’ve gone through some really hard times in the city,” Shinn said. “We’re pretty much down to, in a lot of areas, bare bones. Everyone feels that they’re underappreciated.”
All department heads have been given a budget ceiling that they have been told not to exceed unless the expenditures are related to Caldwell’s top priorities, which include transit-oriented development, parks, roads and sewers.
The Ethics Commission obviously does not fall under any of these categories. Shinn told the agency that it must write a memo to justify any increases beyond its $370,000 budgetary ceiling for Fiscal Year 2015, which begins July 1, 2014.
Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who was not at Monday’s meeting, also made that point in a memo that was delivered to the commission. Much of the tiff between the Ethics Commission and the administration has been focused on how Leong’s department has handled Totto’s budget requests.
“There should be no question that the City supports or cooperates with the Ethics Commission. That is not the issue,” Leong said. “The issue before us is ensuring that the City allocates resources to the Ethics Commission with fiscal prudence and in a way that is responsible to the taxpayer.”
But Totto says that while the extra funds have been helpful, the workload continues to grow.
“I’m not saying the city has a cesspool of corruption,” Totto said. “(But) when you’ve got 8,500 employees you’re bound to have some bad eggs.”
Since Fiscal Year 2002, the commission has seen the number of complaints it investigates grow from 17 to 86 a year. This number is only expected to rise as more city employees go through mandatory ethics training.
Totto expects to reach nearly 100 cases this year alone, and that doesn’t include any of the other work his agency does related to tracking lobbyists, issuing advisory opinions or enacting new ethics rules, such those being developed for transit workers.
“From my point of view, frankly, we’re at the breaking point,” Totto said. “We either get more resources or we start scaling back.”
Totto has said he wants to hire another attorney to help perform investigations, which would increase the number of lawyers in his office from two to three. He also wants to keep a contract investigator on hand to help with investigations.
Over the past three months Totto’s investigator — which is was a new position in his budget this year — helped clear 19 ethics cases. An experienced investigator can also help Totto handle more complex cases, including one that he said involves multiple departments and millions of dollars.
Part of Totto’s pitch to the administration for more money revolves around the fact that stopping corruption can actually save the city money over the long run.
He cited a recent example in which five city employees were running an overtime scheme that paid them for six hours even though they actually only worked one. It took a half a day’s worth of surveillance to make that case, he said, and by busting those employees the city was able to save tens of thousands of dollars.
But while Shinn appreciated the work to stop the scam, she tried to temper Totto’s argument by saying that each one of those employees will likely file a union grievance if not pursue litigation, both of which will cost the city money.
“When you talk about dollars and cents there’s a balancing,” she said, “because I can guarantee you we’ll have (five) grievances on that.”
She also said it’s difficult for her to really quantify the work the commission does since most of it is performed behind closed doors in executive session.
The Ethics Commission unanimously approved sending a letter to the administration supporting an increase in the agency’s budget.
“This is something that should be endorsed,” Commissioner Michael Lilly said. “I would hope the administration would endorse our ability to root out fraud, waste and abuse.”
Money hasn’t been the only point of friction between the Ethics Commission and the Caldwell administration. In a Nov. 14 memo to commissioners, Totto detailed several instances in which the administration withheld information from him about ongoing ethics investigations.
The most glaring example of this involved the embattled Central Oahu nonprofit ORI Anuenue Hale, which has come under intense scrutiny for a series of allegations involving federal grant funds, kickbacks and attempting to influence political decisions through campaign contributions.
Totto has said the administration has refused to release reports related to its investigation into the nonprofit, something that could cost the commission even more money to perform its own investigative work.
But the commission didn’t address any of these issues during its meeting Monday as most of the nearly two hour discussion focused on budget matters.
The commission is expected to take up its ongoing problems with the administration during a meeting Dec. 4.
Read Totto’s Nov. 17 budget memo:
Read Leong’s Nov. 18 response: