Mayor Kirk Caldwell doesn’t have much to say when confronted by his political opponents about the struggles of the Honolulu Ethics Commission and the departure of its executive director, Chuck Totto.
But Charles Djou and Peter Carlisle have been sharpening their attacks in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 13 primary, saying Caldwell is to blame for Totto’s demise and that the mayor doesn’t care about ethics in government.
Caldwell, on the other hand, is distancing himself from the controversy. He says it’s the seven-member commission, three of whom he’d appointed, that was behind the dispute with Totto. Since Totto’s departure, Caldwell appointed Peter Adler to the commission, making that his fourth appointment.
The commission’s mission is to root out corruption in city government and train municipal employees on how to follow the rules when spending taxpayer dollars.
Over the past several months, the commission has seen Totto, its long-time executive director, resign under pressure and its sole investigator quit while protesting the heavy-handed management practices of the political appointees who oversee the agency.
Ethics investigations have lapsed and the commission now finds itself fighting to maintain its credibility in an environment in which citizens across the country are becoming increasingly mistrustful of their government.
“This is a disaster. It’s a disaster created by the mayor without cause or need,” Djou said. “The mayor’s administration pressured the Ethics Commission director to leave and I think it’s pretty plain. It’s because Chuck Totto started asking the quote-unquote wrong questions about the mayor’s political fundraising practices and started poking around the city’s rail project.”
Caldwell refused to be interviewed for this report, saying through his campaign spokeswoman that he was too busy to discuss city ethics before the Aug. 13 primary.
But the Caldwell administration’s problems with the ethics commission are well-documented.
In 2013, shortly after the mayor took office, the commission investigated Caldwell’s inaugural luau, which was paid for in large part by people with direct business interests in the city, including lobbyists, contractors and cabinet members. The commission worried that the donations, totaling $381,000, could be used to curry favor.
An official opinion from the commission said that the case “underscores the serious concerns about the integrity of city government when large donations are made for a mayor’s benefit from those who have much to gain or lose from their business relationships with the city administration.”
That same year, Totto and the commissioners began complaining about administration officials — including several of Caldwell’s cabinet members — meddling with the agency’s budget and blocking access to crucial information to conduct ethics investigations into city employees.
In 2015, after Totto questioned whether certain City Council votes related to Honolulu’s multibillion-dollar rail project should be nullified and recast due to possible conflicts of interest, the administration accused him of speaking out of turn and should not be making such assertions.
Caldwell’s three appointees to the commission, Riki May Amano, Victoria Marks and Allene Suemori, then implemented a restrictive media policy that effectively prevented Totto from talking to the press about agency business. A public outcry from Hawaii’s major media outlets resulted in the commission overturning that decision despite Amano, Marks and Suemori voting to keep it in place.
Totto was eventually suspended without pay for allegedly creating a stressful work environment. He and his staff were also required to start tracking their workdays in six-minute intervals so commissioners could keep tabs on how the office was running.
Both Djou and Carlisle say it’s disingenuous of Caldwell to say he had little if anything to do with Totto’s problems and eventual departure .
Djou, a former congressman and Honolulu City Council member, said Caldwell’s fingerprints are “all over” these decisions.
Carlisle represented Totto in his dispute with the ethics commission and as his attorney had an inside view of the acrimony. He helped negotiate the terms of Totto’s recent separation from city government.
Carlisle blamed Caldwell — and no one else — for the dysfunction of the commission.
“Do I buy into the fact that the people who were appointed by him were on a mission to make Chuck Totto’s life miserable? Yes,” Carlisle said. “I think he should have let Chuck Totto keep on doing that job as long as he wanted to and then replaced Chuck Totto with somebody who was exactly like Chuck Totto. That’s what I think he should have done. If you’re concerned about ethics in the city I think that’s what anybody would do.”
Caldwell has repeatedly dodged questions about the ethics commission. But the mayor has been unable to avoid the topic during recent candidate forums.
He was involved in a heated exchange on “Insights on PBS Hawaii” with Djou and Carlisle, in which both challengers attacked him for the state of the Ethics Commission.
Caldwell distanced himself from the issue, saying that he had nothing to do with Totto’s resignation or any other decisions made by the commission.
The mayor noted that he only appointed three members of the commission, Amano, Marks and Suemori, who were involved with the Totto situation. The other four members, he said, were appointed by Carlisle, his predecessor.
“To somehow imply that they’re being told what to do is an insult to them. I believe the ethics commission is independent.” — Mayor Kirk Caldwell
Caldwell vigorously defended his appointees, saying that all three are former Hawaii judges who retired “honorably” and think for themselves. He also stuck up for Adler, his latest appointee to the ethics commission, who works as a mediator.
“To somehow imply that they’re being told what to do is an insult to them,” Caldwell said. “I believe the Ethics Commission is independent.”
The mayor also scoffed at the notion that he or any of his staff targeted Totto after the commission investigated his inaugural luau, noting that the commission’s official advisory opinion on the matter found no wrongdoing on his part.
Carlisle, who himself was at odds with the commission while he was mayor, called Caldwell’s responses “pure, unequivocal rot.”
“He should be ashamed of what he’s done,” Carlisle said. “And he’s not.”
Djou has said that Totto clashed with previous Mayors Jeremy Harris, Mufi Hannemann and Carlisle, but it wasn’t until Caldwell that Totto began experiencing difficulties doing his job.
Both Carlisle and Djou told Civil Beat that they believe Totto is the best person to lead the commission.
While Carlisle believes it’s too late to repair the city’s relationship with Totto — a new executive director has been chosen — Djou said that as mayor he would call for Totto’s reinstatement. If that didn’t work, Djou said he would offer Totto a position as a commissioner when the time came to make an appointment.
“I think we have to reverse a lot of the politicization of the ethics commission by Kirk Caldwell,” Djou said.
Ethics has been a cornerstone of Djou’s campaign. He also points to his long history of pushing for reform when he was a member of the Honolulu City Council.
“It was disturbing to the public and troubling to me that this was occurring in our government. That’s why I thought it was extremely important that we strengthen the ethics code.” — Charles Djou
Djou was elected to the Council in 2002, a year in which Honolulu was struggling to come to grips with corruption in city government.
Harris was under criminal investigation for circumventing campaign spending laws meant to track who was giving money to his campaign. Several Council members also faced criminal charges for wrongdoing, including Rene Mansho and Andrew Mirikitani, both of whom were sent to prison for their transgressions.
“It was disturbing to the public and troubling to me that this was occurring in our government,” Djou said. “That’s why I thought it was extremely important that we strengthen the ethics code. And giving the ethics commission some teeth was a step in the right direction.”
Djou introduced legislation that would ask voters to give the Honolulu Ethics Commission the authority to levy civil fines against city employees who broke the rules. His first attempts were opposed by the state’s public employee unions as well as several of his own colleagues, including Romy Cachola, Rod Tam and Nestor Garcia.
In 2006, the Honolulu Charter Commission took up the issue and placed a measure on the ballot that would allow the ethics commission to issue fines against elected officials. It passed with nearly 82 percent of voters in favor.
Cachola, Tam and Garcia all were hit with fines from the ethics commission over the next several years, ranging from $2,000 for Tam’s misuse of city funds to pay for his own meals to a $50,000 settlement with Cachola for accepting unlawful gifts from lobbyists and inappropriately using money from the city’s vehicle fund.
Djou said that if elected mayor he will continue to advocate for a stronger ethics commission, either by supporting new legislation to strengthen current laws or pumping more money into the agency’s budget so that it can hire more staff members.
He said he also wants to look for ways to ensure there’s less political meddling in the agency’s affairs. This could include building a better firewall between the commission and the administration. Right now, the commission is administratively attached to the Department of Corporation Counsel, an agency controlled by the mayor.
Carlisle’s platform is more vague. He says the ethics commission needs to rebuild under new leadership that emulates Totto.
Many of the problems that led to Totto’s resignation stemmed from disagreements between him and that department, especially Caldwell-appointee Donna Leong, the city’s top attorney. Totto often accused Leong and other administrative officials of meddling with his budget. He also complained publicly about being stonewalled on various investigations.
Djou said that as mayor he would not stand for such interference.
“We have to have an ethics commission which is independent of the mayor’s office and trusted by the public,” Djou said, “one that operates with a standard and eye toward government integrity, not toward protecting the mayor.”
Carlisle’s platform is more vague. He said the ethics commission needs to rebuild under new leadership that emulates Totto. But Carlisle, who describes himself as fiscally prudent, said that wouldn’t necessarily result in giving the commission more money.
“I don’t know,” Carlisle said. “If I could get a ‘Chuck Totto’ only by putting more money into the salary, I would certainly consider it.”
During the Caldwell administration, the commission was able to increase its operating budget from about $270,000 in fiscal year 2013, Carlisle’s last full year in office, to nearly $485,000 in fiscal year 2016.
Despite the increased funding, Totto and his staff still complained that city officials were being heavy-handed about approving certain expenses, such as for investigator contracts, salaries, ethics training for city employees and the purchase of equipment.