Honolulu’s Ethics Commission, tasked with ferreting out government corruption, hoped to purchase a $600 GPS tracking device last month to investigate city employees suspected of getting paid for work that they didn’t do.

The alleged scheme is believed to be costing the city a quarter of a million dollars a year, according to a draft of a letter the Ethics Commission intends to send to Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

A copy of the draft letter from Katy Chen, vice chair of the Ethics Commission, was provided to Civil Beat by the commission. It provides no further details about the fraud investigation.

The investigation was hampered by the amount of time that Donna Leong, the city’s corporation counsel, took to approve the GPS device, the letter states.

Leong “waited five weeks while apparently mulling over ‘policy implications’ before conditionally approving the $600 purchase, by which time the investigative window on the case had closed,” the letter states.

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Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto

Nick Grube/ Civil Beat

This latest action by the corporation counsel is one of a string of Caldwell administration affronts to the independence of the Ethics Commission in recent months, the letter states.

The letter asks Caldwell to clarify the limitations of the corporation counsel’s powers to “help revitalize the independence of the commission, as well as demonstrate the administration’s commitment to an excellent ethics program.”

A spokesman for the Caldwell administration did not respond to a request for comment on the letter, which will likely be discussed at an Ethics Commission meeting Thursday.

The public rift between the commission and the Caldwell administration dates to last fall when Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto began complaining that the corporation counsel was undermining his authority to make decisions and manipulating his budget.

The commission is administratively tied to the office of the corporation counsel, but is supposed to be an autonomous agency, according to the city charter.

The letter lays out the history of conflicts.

“In the fall of 2013. the corporation counsel asserted that she had the authority to control the commission’s budget, even to the extent of making line-item reductions,” the letter states. “FY 2014 and FY 2015 budgets endangered the commission’s independence. When the corporation counsel restricts the commission’s budget, she is also limiting the resources that can be brought to bear on the ethical issues facing city government.”

Leong challenged and delayed the contract of the commission’s only investigator, according to the letter. She also questioned the commission’s request for additional staff for the 2015 fiscal year.

“Her comments focused on the employee grievances that might result from finding that personnel had misused city resources, not on the loss of taxpayer funds and the public trust in city government.” — Ethics Commission letter referring to Ember Shinn, mayor’s managing director 

The Ethics Commission letter also expresses frustration with Ember Shinn, Caldwell’s managing director.

“In another example affecting the top echelon of city leaders, the managing director appears to have directed all cabinet members to seek ethics advice from corporation counsel, not from the commission,” the letter states.

Totto has complained in the past that this is a conflict of interest. The office of the corporation counsel is comprised of attorneys who represent city agencies, as well as the administration and City Council members.

The letter also expresses concerns about past statements made by Shinn that ethics investigations could lead to employee grievances.

When “the managing director appeared before the commission to discuss the commission’s FY 2015 budget, her comments focused on the employee grievances that might result from finding that personnel had misused city resources, not on the loss of taxpayer funds and the public trust in city government,” the letter states. “The commission hopes this doesn’t reflect the position of the administration.”

Conflicts between the Ethics Commission and the Caldwell administration began to arise around the same time that Totto released an opinion in September that found Caldwell had unknowingly violated city gift laws when his mayoral transition team accepted tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and contractors who had business dealings with the city.

The commission didn’t find any evidence that the mayor knew who the donors were and cleared him of any wrongdoing.

You can read the letter here:

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