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Peter Apo has been entrusted to serve the public for a long time. He’s now an elected trustee at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a taxpayer-funded government agency focused upon improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians.
But he has been in positions of public power for decades, as a state representative, a director of culture and arts, a special assistant to the governor and as director of Waikiki development.
Apo even was given the opportunity to speak altruistically about local issues in a two-year-long stint as a Civil Beat columnist.
His recent misdeeds therefore also deserve open and fully transparent airings, including from Civil Beat, not secretive settlements mitigating guilt and avoiding criminal charges.
Not that long ago, Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi deservedly faced detailed criticisms about his misuse of a public credit card, including charging taxpayers for the $900 he spent in one day at a Honolulu “hostess” bar, which has been repaid but still never fully explained.
Apo not only admittedly misused public resources, like Kenoi, he has been entwined in allegations that he sexually harassed a subordinate public employee, too, then fired her because she complained about it. That second charge has been buried in a secretive settlement, as first reported by Hawaii News Now. The settlement was paid for by taxpayers (including you!), that reportedly includes “no admission of wrongdoing.”
Which leads to the glaringly obvious question: If there was no wrongdoing, why pay $50,000 for a settlement and keep all of the details secret, including forcing the victim into a confidentiality agreement? Suspiciously, Apo’s statement about the matter did not directly address the allegations (did he, or didn’t he?). Instead, he opted for this vague line: “I have never broken trust with the OHA beneficiaries I serve,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
Following up on a double-whammy of a report in January by Rick Daysog at Hawaii News Now, Civil Beat used this protective headline on its first story: “Apo: Don’t Jump To Conclusions.” It had also ended his column in December, without explanation.
Readers were left to wonder what happened with Apo behind the scenes at Civil Beat, and why wasn’t the media organization being more forthright about that situation, which includes allegations of significant uncredited research assistance, at taxpayer expense?
No one wants to acknowledge being tricked. No one wants to expose others to public scorn. But that’s not how journalism works. Journalism is a trust and integrity business, and those are the primary sources of capital for reporters.
Journalists are obligated, by their Code of Ethics, to be accountable and transparent, including a specific directive to expose unethical conduct, even within their own organization. That’s one of the four primary tenets of the code (along with “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm” and “act independently.”)
Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler has told me that the nonprofit organization follows the SPJ Code, as well as other, more detailed company policies, such as those for anonymous sources, reader privacy and corporate donations.
In the Apo case, though, Civil Beat has covered major developments circulating in local news about him, such as the recent Ethics Commission fine of $25,000, “one of the largest in ethics commission history,” and a lawsuit related to the sexual harassment charges. While Civil Beat has noted in stories that Apo was a former columnist, it refrained from additional public comment about his two-year relationship with the media company.
When asked about Apo and his case, Epler declined to comment.
The Civil Beat readership deserves more, though, including a transparent statement about Apo’s break in the relationship with Civil Beat.
Otherwise, if we think something significant is being hidden about him at Civil Beat, how can we assess whether journalists are treating Apo’s case fairly (or not)? Or worse, maybe the situation also affects coverage of some of his unnamed associates.
Apo bills himself in the Ethics Commission settlement as the owner of a “limited liability company that provides services in business consulting, music, and journalism.” But in his bio on www.peterapo.com, he lists a variety of details about his life, including that he “attended” the University of Oregon as a psychology major, the number of grandchildren he has (seven) and even that he co-wrote “The Sovereignty Song.” For journalism expertise, though, he declines to list any particular training in this field, in favor of the claim that he is a “prolific” author of op-ed articles about Hawaiian politics and culture.
According to the Civil Beat salary database for public employees, Apo earns about $57,000 a year from OHA on top of the money raised by his consulting company. I’ll leave for another day the discussion on whether his consulting company work creates a significant conflict of interest (or worse).
Apo has been in public office or has been working as a public servant for most of his life. To make the claim, as he did recently, that he only discovered during the ethics commission investigation that it was inappropriate to ask a taxpayer-funded OHA staff member to work on his private business projects, which he allegedly did numerous times, is preposterous.
That statement indicates he has fraudulent intent, and to claim ignorance like that is offensive and demeaning to all of the people who have entrusted Apo with public resources and power over the years.
Civil Beat, for its part, gave Apo a megaphone and part of its institutional credibility. Since he betrayed that trust, Civil Beat now needs to look closer at the case and determine just how deep that deception went. Did he use his Civil Beat connections and commentary to benefit his business? When using taxpayer money to “research” his columns, did he also coerce staff members to write for him? Did he trade favors in his column for consulting work? What else should we know about Apo and his time at Civil Beat?
Silence just makes us suspect the worst.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.