Ronald Ching, the first and only hit man Hawaii’s long-time investigative reporter James Dooley ever interviewed, was not your average professional killer.

Dooley writes about Ching and many other Hawaii crime and corruption stories, all of which he first brought to light as a news reporter, in his new book “Sunny Skies, Shady Characters: Cops, Killers, and Corruption in the Aloha State.”

Ching wasn’t a loner protecting his anonymity by living quietly and staying in the shadows. In his day job he was a Teamster TV and movie production truck driver who regularly appeared on the set of “Magnum, P.I.”

"Sunny Skies, Shady Characters"

James Dooley’s new book

Ronnie, as his friends called him, was also different because he was not interested in murder contract offers from some anonymous person thousands of miles away. No flying first class with a thin valise concealing who knows what to bump off a stranger.

Instead, Ching liked to do his killing close to his home. Really close to his house.

Among other murders, Ching was convicted of a kidnapping and killing that took place in the parking lot of his Kapiolani Boulevard apartment. He also admitted to a hit that took place in a bar just a block from that same building.

In fact, less than an hour after that bar killing and while the cops were still there, Ching strolled back to the bar to see how things were going down there.

Have gun, will travel — between Chinatown and Ala Moana.

As Dooley shows, some of the corruption in Hawaii, like Ching himself, was bloody and sinister, involving the Mob, Yakuza, and pitched battles between rival Teamster Union members. Other scandals like the Bishop Estate and Kukui Plaza affairs, may not have involved violence, but in their own way they were as outrageous, crude and blatant as a Mafia hit.

Crookedness Openly Defended

The state’s corruption, again like Ching, was also kind of quirky. It had a simple, small-time crudeness that you hardly see in Hawaii any more.

No government official today would defend crookedness the way that the head of Mayor Frank Fasi’s Honolulu redevelopment agency justified the corruption that was involved in building and occupying the city’s new Kukui Plaza apartments.

The city built the downtown Kukui Plaza supposedly for people with low or moderate incomes. People who were displaced by the project were supposed to get first crack at the units. Instead, Fasi’s friends and supporters got to jump the line.

“Sometimes in our system the people who have the right kind of friends, they get what you might call equity.”

Many other bad things happened. The mayor used the construction as a way to reward his supporters. A big Fasi fundraiser got a no-bid contract to supply all of the high-rise’s carpeting. The mayor gave another supporter a contract for the building’s parking in exchange for political support. That was such an obvious quid pro quo that the supporter (not the mayor) went to prison.

So that is what the development official was defending when Dooley quotes him saying this to the City Council: “Sometimes in our system the people who have the right kind of friends, they get what you might call equity.”

Today, corruption is less dramatic and more peaceful here. It is no longer a good time to be a contract killer or a Yakuza trying to hide his maimed finger from the airport customs officials.

There are also fewer opportunities for large insider real estate deals like the ones described in the Gavan Dawes and George Cooper book, “Land and Power in Hawaii,” and it is hard to imagine any future financial and political scandal as huge and smarmy as the one involving the Bishop Estate.

Hawaii today is less small-time, more business-like, and more wired into the global economy. As the place has changed, corruption has changed along with it.

Diamond Head with Hotels and condominiums in the foreground. 27 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Like everything else in Honolulu, corruption has evolved.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Corruption may be quieter and subtler now, but it continues to exist because the key forces that drove corruption during Dooley’s time are still there.

These enabling threads of corruption include a tolerance of conflicts of interest; the acceptance of the idea that it’s OK to use politics to reward your friends; and, most important of all, the involvement of government agencies that are either complicit or inept.

The Bishop Estate Scandal

Dooley does an excellent job in reminding people just how outrageous the Bishop Estate scandal was from the late-1980s to the early-1990s.

The Bishop Estate scandal — where to begin. Start with the fact that trustees managed a billion-dollar-plus charitable trust, with all the proceeds going to Kamehameha Schools.

The scandalous laundry list included inappropriate financial behavior on the part of the estate’s trustees and conflicts of interest on the part of not just the trustees but also high-level political officials. In addition, there was arbitrary, illegal behavior by the trustees regarding their administration of Kamehameha Schools.

It is both fascinating and sadly horrifying to follow the blustery, twisted excuses that then-Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Herman Lum used to justify his blatant conflict of interest.

One trustee went to jail, the rest resigned. No politicians did either.

In the Bishop debacle, rewarding your friends and defining away conflicts of interest was rampant among politicians, judges and of course the trustees themselves. Just as bad were the hypocrisy and head-in-the-sand rationalizations that judges, politicians, and Bishop trustee used to justify their behavior.  

It is both fascinating and sadly horrifying to follow the blustery, twisted excuses that then-Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Herman Lum used to justify his blatant conflict of interest regarding the affairs of the Bishop Estate.

His claims could never pass any smell test, but so what? Lum could confidently declare that he did not have a conflict of interest because the rules at the time allowed the Chief Justice to decide for himself whether he did or not. 

(Show of hands: How many of you would like to decide for yourself how much you owe in taxes?)

Not to mention the fact that by the rules of the Hawaii Supreme Court, justices chose the Bishop trustees.

Important government officials, like the entire Hawaii Supreme Court for instance, were clearly complicit. But at other times the corruption was more insidious because it was legal. The law allowed for this bad behavior.

Many of these tawdry dealings, in the words of New York Times columnist Joe Nocera describing some Wall Street behavior, “were legal, even as they oozed with sleaze.”

(Want the fullest picture of the Bishop fiasco? Read Samuel P. King and Randall W. Roth, “Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement, And Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust.”)

Today, Money Trumps Friendship

Nothing today matches the Bishop Estate affair’s score on the sleaze-o-meter, but there are still significant conflicts of interests, and the law still allows this to happen.

Right now, the most visible ones have to do with the Honolulu City Council. The city’s Ethics Commission recently fined two former City Council members for failing to disclose their conflicts of interest while in office. Romy Cachola, one of the guilty parties, has claimed that other City Council members have done the same.

State Representative Romy Cachola sits at the House floor.  14 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Now a state representative, Romy Cachola claimed he wasn’t the only Honolulu City Council member who didn’t disclose conflicts of interest.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While the laws worked in those two cases, a silly and potentially paralyzing legal conflict between the Honolulu Mayor’s Office and the Ethics Commission could potentially limit any further investigation of Cachola’s charges.

During much of the period that Dooley covers, rewarding your friends was about personal connections.

He describes the way Pundy Yokouchi, a Maui real estate developer with strong connections to Gov. John Burns and the Democratic Party and a member of the Maui Planning Commission, justified the land deals that made a number of Maui Democratic politicians rich. “It wasn’t a nefarious plot, he (Yokouchi) said. It just happened. Maui is a small place, everybody knew everybody else, family and personal connections were deep and complicated.”

Today things are less personal and more political — campaign donors rather than friends and relatives.    

Pay to play, whereby a company needs to donate to a politician’s political campaign in order to get government contracts, is certainly not new, but relative to rewarding your friends and neighbors, it has become more prominent. 

Though pay to play may be hard to prove legally (for one thing it is difficult to show that there was an explicit quid pro quo), it does not take an expert in campaign finance to figure out who the big campaign donors are and what results from that calculated generosity.

Pay to play’s success depends either on government complicity or government cluelessness.

Just Read the State Audits

You can see evidence of both in the state’s procurement process, where state agencies draw up the qualifications a company must have in order to qualify for a government contract.

There are procurement laws in place, as there have been for a long time, but as the state auditor regularly reports, the procurement process is bereft and shady in a number of state agencies.

This is a constant problem, especially with some key agencies.

Time and again the state auditor’s reports show that state agencies often have little clue about what’s going on in their operation.  Agencies fail to monitor both the criteria for getting governments and the results of the contractors’ work.

Back in the days of Kukui Plaza, friendship brought about access. Now, it’s more likely big money does the trick.

That’s not new. In the early 1990s when Dooley was trying to investigate the political connections of tax delinquents, he discovered that the state’s Department of Taxation had no reliable list of tax delinquents and no hope of getting one. In fact, the director of the tax department told him just that.

When it comes to bad monitoring and lax procurement practices, the state Department of Transportation is one of the biggest violators. 

This was true when Dooley was digging up stories. He shows how during the Cayetano administration the DOT’s Airports Division wrote job specs that illegally loaded the dice in favor of local contractors. (Dooley also describes Cayetano’s unconvincing attempt to deny any involvement in this.)

The most recent state auditor’s report shows that the Department of Transportation continues to get just about every part of the procurement process wrong.

This trashing of the procurement process invites corruption. In the past, that is exactly what some high level politicians and low-level bureaucrats wanted. There is no reason to think that the past is entirely behind us.     

Taken together, these longstanding corruption enablers enhance sleaze by helping some people get unfair access to the makers and shakers that make illicit deals possible.

Back in the days of Kukui Plaza, friendship brought about access. Now, it’s more likely big money does the trick.

Access corrupts. Absolute access corrupts absolutely. Just as it has in the past.

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