Any colloquial discussion of ethical conduct and government employees should commence with rats.

To rat on another is to inform on or betray. It used to be to do so required no more effort than dropping a dime. For you youngsters under 40, the reference to a coin may be difficult to comprehend. These days with credit, debit and prepaid phone cards, the use of a coin is an archaic way to make a phone call and a dime is insufficient for either a call or a cup of coffee.

In the hallowed place where I spent most of my life, the last century, the phrase “dropping a dime” was criminal underworld slang describing surreptitiously providing information to the police. The expression dates from a time when a public pay telephone call cost 10 cents and a dime was dropped into the slot. This facilitated a call to the police or other authority by an anonymous informer without fear of the call being traced.

State Representative Romy Cachola2. 14 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Rep. Romy Cachola serves in the Legislature despite the ethics troubles he ran into stemming from his time as a Honolulu City Council member.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In this century the dime-dropper has morphed into the wondrous whistleblower. Nowadays a person who truthfully blows the whistle by revealing corruption or wrongdoing in government is often admired and legally protected. So I want to claim some small level of recognition as a whistleblower on a pre-eminent role model of ethical behavior, former City Council member Romy Cachola.

Chuck Totto, legal counsel of the Honolulu Ethics Commission, successfully prosecuted claims against Cachola. Chuck’s investigation disclosed the following:

  • Cachola misused his city position by collecting about $9,450 in reimbursements for automobile expenses when he was collecting the same reimbursements from his campaign fund.
  • He accepted dozens of unlawful gifts from lobbyists, including meals and wine at high-end restaurants, as well as golf outings, worth thousands of dollars.
  • The unlawful gifts created conflicts of interest when Cachola voted on bills favored by the lobbyists and failed to disclose conflicts of interest created by the illegal gifts.

Ultimately, Cachola settled the case against him by paying a $50,000 fine to the City and County of Honolulu. According to Totto, this was one of the highest fines in the country for similar misconduct.

In an advisory opinion about the case, Chuck detailed a number of interesting facts discovered during the investigation of Cachola including the following:

  • For 12 years Cachola sat on committees with jurisdiction over ethics laws and policy. For six years he was the chairman.
  • He ignored the consequences of misuse of position by former council members and did not heed the Ethics Commission’s advisory opinions in those cases.
  • He regularly accepted gifts in excess of $200 for six years despite being forewarned not to do so.
  • He repeatedly violated his oath of office to uphold the city’s ethics laws.

As a result, Totto condemned Cachola’s impressive wealth of ethics violations as “pernicious.”

A Whistleblower Myself

My modest contribution to the investigation of Cachola began when as mayor I accepted an invitation to attend a dinner hosted by representatives of one of Honolulu’s sister cities. The dinner choices involved were a set menu with a pre-selected salad and dessert with a few entree choices and the choice of red or white wine.

Councilman Cachola was present representing the Honolulu City Council. While all ate and drank what was provided by the set menu, Cachola additionally ordered a separate plate of food and a bottle of alcohol. He ate a small fraction of the food he ordered and did not open the bottle. At the end of the evening, Cachola took what he ordered home.

After Cachola and our hosts left I spoke to the owner of the restaurant regarding payment for the food and drink ordered by Cachola. The owner indicated he absorbed the cost of the wine and additional food. I thought that was the end of the issue since the owner paid for the additions. I was still furious about the stunt Cachola pulled. I instructed the chair of the City Council that I never wanted Councilman Cachola present representing Honolulu at any similar event I attended.

Quite some time later a person involved with the tourist industry and I were having a conversation when he told me he had a bad experience with a council member. I asked him if it was Cachola. He said it was, and recounted an episode similar to what I had witnessed. I asked if he was willing to repeat what he told me to somebody on the Ethics Commission. He said yes, so long as his statement was not made public.

The former prosecutor in me kicked in and I thought if there were two incidents it might constitute a pattern of unethical conduct. I called up Chuck Totto and told him what I knew. He told me there were a number of complaints against Cachola but nobody was willing to go on record.

It is significant to remember that an anonymous complaint will be accepted and investigated by both the state and county ethics commissions. The case against an ethics violator becomes stronger if there is a person willing to testify against the violator. So when Chuck Totto asked if I was willing to testify against Cachola I responded in my best New Jersey vernacular, “Hell yes.”

So I proudly proclaim I was a whistleblower on this highly successful investigation. I do feel compelled to issue a warning. Anyone who intentionally falsely accuses another of unethical conduct and submits a false charge to the Ethics Commission is committing a crime and should not pass go.

The Ethics Commission also approved a settlement of the claims against Councilman “Rocket” Rodney Tam for misusing his Annual Contingency Allowance (discretionary fund) to excessively reimburse himself for hundreds of meals that actually cost less than he claimed for were not related to city business during fiscal years 2006-2009. He was ordered to pay $13,700 in reimbursals and fines.

These problems didn’t keep Tam from continuing a run for mayor and appearing in a candidate’s forum. His unique answers and oratory could be charitably described as marginally coherent. He put his best foot forward if that happened to be in the direction of his mouth and garnered a whopping 4 percent of the vote. There were more than three times more blank votes than Tam votes.

City, State Ethics Commissions

There are no doubt other potential whistleblowers out there, so I’d like to detail some of the nuts and bolts of the Honolulu and state ethics commissions.

There are five members of the Honolulu Ethics Commission: an executive director and legal counsel, an associate legal counsel, one investigator and two legal clerks. This staff provides mandatory ethics training for all city officers and employees (8,500), which is required every two years. This is accomplished by using the “train the trainer” approach where Ethics Commission staff trains supervisors and managers in each department using a 20-minute DVD, handouts and a quiz.

The supervisors and managers are then responsible for training their subordinates. The commission also provides specialized training for various departments when requested, including council members and cabinet members. This training is also done in person by the executive director and legal counsel.

The commission maintains a website that provides access to Ethics Commission guidelines, publications, advisory opinions and relevant laws.

The Hawaii State Constitution mandates the adoption of a code of ethics by the state and each of the counties for appointed and elected officers and employees. Public employees must exhibit “the highest standards of ethical conduct.” The state Ethics Commission is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the State Ethics Code and the State Lobbyists Law. The commission has jurisdiction over approximately 60,000 appointed and elected state officials and employees. The State Ethics Code calls upon the commission to administer the ethics laws “so that public confidence in public servants will be preserved.”

This will be no small task in Hawaii County in the foreseeable future considering the onslaught of revelations and tribulations of Mayor William “Billy” Kenoi.

The state Ethics Commission has five members, who may not hold any other public office and are prohibited from taking an active part in political management or political campaigns. Much like the Honolulu Ethics Commission, the state commission conducts ethics training sessions, issues opinions and guidance about the State Ethics Code, investigates alleged violations of the law and administers the filing requirements of the financial disclosure law, gifts disclosure law and has the additional burden of administering the lobbying registration and reporting laws.

The Commission employs a staff of 10, which includes Executive Director Les Kondo, an associate director, four staff attorneys, a computer specialist and three secretarial staff members.

Clearly there are a number of steps that can be taken to prevent ethical violations by government employees. My favorite trick to cover my hindquarters when I was mayor was to call and tell Chuck Totto what I was planning to do and ask for his opinion. I would often get a written opinion that included legal research.

If we didn’t agree with each other, which happened maybe once, he was free to go to the commission and I was free to seek a legal remedy through Corporation Counsel. Everything was done out in the open with a paper trail and not behind closed doors.

Should you need to get in touch one of the ethics commissions I’ve discussed, here’s how:

• Honolulu Ethics Commission, 715 S. King Street, Suite 211, Honolulu, HI 96813-3091. Office (808) 768-7717.  Fax (808) 768-1317. Website: www.honolulu.gov/ethics

• Hawaii State Ethics Commission, 1001 Bishop Street, Suite 970, Honolulu, HI 96813. Mailing address: P.O. Box 616, Honolulu, HI 96809. Phone (808) 587-0460. Fax: (808) 587-0470. Email: Ethics@hawaiiethics.org

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