Corruption. Conspiracy. Lying to investigators. With last week’s guilty verdict in the Kealoha trial, we know fraud is alive and well in Honolulu.

While a few are ready to move on, I agree with the approach suggested by Loretta Sheehan, chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission. We should use this time to learn why this happened and what can be done to mitigate the risk of future fraud, waste and abuse.

One of the things that is important in any organization is the “tone at the top,” i.e., the culture of values set by management, e.g., elected officials, boards and commissions. That tone can be set in various ways.

For example, policies and procedures can specifically tell us what is appropriate in given situations. The tone may also be set indirectly through actions.

What is the “tone at the top” in Honolulu? Perhaps the best way to figure that out is a preliminary evaluation of messages we’ve been given over the years.

With respect to the Honolulu Ethics Commission, it wasn’t: How can we support your investigation of the Kealohas?

Nor was it: What do you need to get through the backlog of cases you’ve had for several years?

Honolulu Hale building. 27 april 2017

The tone starts at the top, in this case Honolulu Hale, says the author.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It was: Stop investigating the Kealohas. And, no, you may not buy a $700 piece of equipment to investigate an employee who is alleged to have used city resources inappropriately.

With respect to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, it’s not: Yes, most definitely we’ll hire an internal auditor as recommended by the city auditor. And it certainly wasn’t: Absolutely you may have the minutes of our executive session meetings as requested under a federal subpoena.

The message is, however, first and foremost: Our job is to build rail all the way to Ala Moana, and “we have to see what our attorneys have to say (about the subpoena).”

Other hints of the city’s “tone at the top” can be found online.

For example, the city has an integrity hotline, but it is buried on the Ethics Commission’s website under “Additional Resources” and very clearly states in bold font, “City Employees Only.”

A toll-free number is provided, but the automated recording does not indicate whether callers may remain anonymous. There is also a link to a website, but it does not work.

Improving The Tone

What can be done to improve the tone at the top and mitigate the risk of fraud? Some great recommendations have already been made by our city and state auditors.

Other ideas are:

  • Revise the integrity hotline to make it available 24/7 to anyone who has a concern about wrongdoing in the city, confirm anonymous reporting and ensure reports are sent to the right people;
  • adopt a fraud policy;
  • enforce laws and follow through with fair and consistent consequences when they’re broken;
  • make sure oversight agencies such as the Honolulu Ethics Commission are adequately funded; and
  • consider an office of the inspector general to go beyond complaints about ethics.

One final thought about mitigating risks of fraud – certain people have been allowed to operate without regard for the law or our best interests for a long time.

If we want change, we need to make sure we participate by providing input to elected officials and ultimately by voting for people who will do the right thing.

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