There is little that undermines the public’s confidence in government more corrosively than a lack of transparency.

Denying members of public or the media who serve them access to government records they have the right to review diminishes the trust essential to a healthy democracy. It also creates suspicion over what’s being kept under wraps and why.

And yet that’s exactly the situation that Attorney General Doug Chin seems to be perpetuating.

The Legislature’s abrupt replacement of Acting State Auditor Jan Yamane in April on the heels of an attorney general investigation of the Office of the Auditor was never explained. Months later, Civil Beat has sued to get records related to the investigation and learn what prompted legislators to replace Yamane with Les Kondo, who was then executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

City Ethics Commission Executive Director and Legal Counsel Jan Yamane. 9 aug 2016
Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director and Legal Counsel Jan Yamane, right, is the former acting director of the Hawaii Office of the Auditor Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In this case, suspicion not only hangs over state leaders but also extends to the City and County of Honolulu, where Yamane was subsequently hired as executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission.

How can taxpayers and voters be expected to have faith in her leadership in that key position if the circumstances of her departure from her previous position are being doggedly kept from public view?

The Department of the Attorney General has already shared its final investigative records in the matter with Senate President Ron Kouchi — who declined to discuss them with Civil Beat — and other key legislators. But the AG has refused to make those records public, citing privacy concerns, a deliberative process privilege and attorney-client privilege. This despite statutory language that unequivocally states all Hawaii government records “are open to public inspection unless access is restricted or closed by law.”

Officials responsible for auditing government performance or enforcing ethics codes can only be effective to the degree they enjoy the public’s trust. Disregarding records laws designed to keep those offices accountable puts that trust at risk.

Even if there are compelling reasons that some of the information contained in those records should be kept from public disclosure, at least part of it must be appropriate to release. Chin’s department is neither releasing records with some portions redacted nor offering any substantive explanation for the secrecy.

Civil Beat is represented in this matter by Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

“These records are important because the attorney general’s office did a factual investigation into something going on at one of the most important offices in the state that is the watchdog for all of the other departments in the state,” said Black. “If there’s a problem in that office the public should know about it.”

Officials responsible for auditing government performance or enforcing ethics codes can only be effective to the degree they enjoy the public’s trust. Disregarding records laws designed to keep those offices accountable puts that trust at risk.

As Hawaii’s First Circuit Court considers this matter, we urge Chin, as well as his boss, Gov. David Ige, to rethink this matter and consider the steep costs of secrecy.

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