Picture corruption at your workplace (for some of you, this activity doesn’t take too much imagination).

You want to do the right thing. You want to stop it. Yet you also are afraid of repercussions and don’t feel safe reporting it to your supervisors, who just might be involved. So what do you do?

Even a decade ago, the answer would have been clear and prompted by its persistent place on your doorstep: Call the reporter you know at the daily newspaper!

The diffusion of media power today, though, including the broad deflation of the newspaper industry, and the significant losses of journalism jobs, makes the list of trusty whistle-blowing choices in this state more difficult to identify. These shrinking options for seeking justice hurt our community. They hurt our organizations and institutions, and they disenfranchise you, too.

Of course, you still could complain to a government agency that regulates the behavior (but I’ve been waiting nearly two years for the Office of Information Practices to rule on my charge against the law-breaking Sheriff Division). You could post about it on social media and hope your message miraculously goes viral. You could quit in protest.

Man character need help. Vector flat cartoon illustration

But don’t you always want an option to bring your concern in confidence to an independent evaluator, such as a professional journalist, who has the potential to air the case in public upon its merits? As journalists disappear, so do those opportunities.

Journalists can serve such a greater good, raising community issues and forcing them to be addressed through public pressures. Unless journalists aren’t around anymore. Unless they don’t have the resources to look into your complaints. Unless the target is one of the community’s sacred cows, like the Honolulu Police Department.

The Harvey Weinstein case, circulating nationally now, illustrates how deeply and pervasively people within a system can keep its most horrible secrets.

In summary of this story, Weinstein allegedly serially harassed women for about three decades as head of the powerful Miramax movie company. His influential friends, such as Quentin Tarantino, protected him. When the women complained, he paid them off.

Such complicity and perverse sheltering of bad behavior happens in local public agencies as well. Peter Apo, a trustee in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, for example, recently had taxpayer money intended for furthering Hawaiian cultural causes bail him out of sexual harassment charges. Ruth Forbes, a former Big Island prison warden, allegedly committed egregious acts of sexual harassment on subordinates repeatedly and without initial recourse.

What corruption and crime do you know about in our community but to date have not reported? What’s stopping you?

What eventually tilted the power of all of these situations back toward the public’s interests?

Journalism. Without it, for starters, you wouldn’t even know any of these things had happened. The Weinstein case is a complex illumination of the power of the press. Again, Weinstein had been committing these acts of sexual violence for decades. Not until The New York Times ran its expose, though, and the New Yorker followed up, was he truly held accountable.

Journalists aren’t always a perfect option, of course, either. They don’t always get the job done.

For example, The New York Times also had this Weinstein story in their sights in 2004, before it eventually dropped the piece, under contested circumstances. Variety magazine, which benefitted greatly from Miramax advertising money, also appears to have explicitly avoided this topic under a suspicious backdrop. This story clearly should have been published sooner. But it also gives grounding and weight to what New York Times’ columnist Jim Rutenberg described as a “protection racket. This is the network of aggressive public relations flacks and lawyers who guard the secrets of those who employ them and keep their misdeeds out of public view.”

From my interactions with public information officers throughout the state, including at both the Honolulu Police Department and the Department of Public Safety (which oversees the Sheriff Division), we have a similar enculturation problem in Hawaii. PIOs here often play this same sort of protectionist game, serving the interests of powerful bureaucrats rather than the taxpayers who pay their salaries.

Think about why we have public information officers in the first place. Wouldn’t that be for us to have reliable and readily available information about how our public resources, such as law enforcement, are being used?

Ai Weiwei exhibit Richard Snowden made from Lego at the Hirshorn museum. Smithsonian. Washington DC.

This Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., depicts well-know whistleblower Edward Snowden. He’s made of Legos here.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I don’t recall taxpayers ever eagerly pooling their funds to create jobs that protect wrongdoers in public positions. When did sycophancy get added to the job descriptions, and who allowed that? I really want to know, and if such behavior is not a part of the job description, then why is it tolerated (if not encouraged)? Someone take accountability for this, please.

A more open and transparent system of government (which is what our laws prescribe) privileges the masses, not the incumbent power. So how did we get flipped upside down?

Just think about the recent trouble surrounding the Honolulu Police Department, in which former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his city-prosecutor wife, Katherine, among others in the department, were arrested last week.

So many crooked cops (and apparently at least one prosecutor, too) leads us to question how the department possibly could have become so corrupt? Part of the answer, I think, is the shielding of the public from police procedures, and part of the answer, I suspect is the unmitigated feeling of entitlement these officers shared under such protections from public view.

A lawyer for one of the defendant cops actually argued that HPD incompetence is so rampant that this stolen-mailbox case is just one of many examples of a bungled criminal investigation. The attorney, Birney Bervar, added, “Mistakes and sloppy police work and inaccurate police reports are a daily occurrence in the state courts here in Hawaii. That doesn’t mean there’s a criminal conspiracy.”

Might it mean, though, that we in the public, including journalists, need to keep better tabs on our public agencies and institutions?

Another attorney knowledgeable about this case, Alexander Silvert, noted that “This (corruption) was on such a massive scale within the police department. This isn’t just one rogue officer. This is the top echelon of the police department using their powers to frame an individual. That’s simply outrageous and unacceptable.”

Key questions in all of this, like in the Weinstein case, is who knew, how long have they known, and why didn’t they do anything about it sooner?

Edward Snowden, while living in Hawaii and working for the U.S. government, stumbled upon a vast national surveillance system secretly put in place to track any American citizen, regardless of guilt or even the presumption of guilt. He was surrounded by people who also knew what he knew, but they did nothing about it. Snowden gave that information to journalists, who aired the concerns in public.

A doctor for the U.S. gymnastics team, Lawrence G. Nassar, allegedly had been sexually assaulting girls on that team, ages 13 to 16, for decades before an IndyStar expose and follow-up stories by The Lansing State Journal. One of the responses from the team has been to create a “complete cultural change.”

What corruption and crime do you know about in our community but to date have not reported? This post-HPD moment is our chance to have a complete cultural change before other veiled problems here get any worse. What’s stopping you?

Your tip to journalists might lead to the next great community-improving story. Civil Beat is among the journalism organizations here to set up a secure “TipBox” for just such information to be securely and anonymously handed over to journalists for consideration.

Think about how different our local institutions would be if they served us more (and the powerful within them less). If you have seen crime and corruption, report it to journalists, such as those who work for Civil Beat.

If you know about it, though, and don’t say anything, you are both enabling and complicit in tolerance of the activity. In other words, you are responsible for it, too.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    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 brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    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.