A Civil Beat story this week examined in depressing detail how two investigators with the Honolulu Ethics Commission ended up not only losing their jobs but having their lives upended.
All because they dared to do their jobs.
Executive director Chuck Totto and investigator Letha DeCaires were targeted for defamation and destruction because they were investigating now-convicted Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a former city prosecutor and a current inmate at the Federal Detention Center.
We now know that Totto and DeCaires, like federal investigators, were on to what turned out to be the biggest public corruption scandal in Honolulu in recent memory.
The scandal continues, with more trials coming for the Kealohas and with top officials in the city’s prosecutor and Corporation Counsel offices on leave because they are identified as possible targets of the feds.
Let’s clean house: Honolulu Ethics Commission Chair Victoria Marks and Vice Chair Michael Lilly are two of the current commissioners who should be replaced.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Tuesday’s story shows how officials in those agencies as well as in the Honolulu Police Department and the Caldwell administration actively worked to interfere with the work of Totto and DeCaires.
“There are no winners in this,” DeCaires said. “It’s sad that those people who were in such positions of power and influence could have fallen so low.”
Totto worries that more corruption may be in Honolulu’s future if changes aren’t made.
He’s right. The ethics commission is supposed to “improve and maintain public confidence in government officials and employees” as detailed in the city charter.
But the commission failed its mission in 2015 when it made decisions that led to the forced departure of Totto and DeCaires. Victoria Marks, the retired judge who heads the Ethics Commission, now says Totto and DeCaires were not forced out because the Kealohas had filed complaints against them. But there’s ample reason to think otherwise, including Totto’s own view on his resignation.
The commission should have supported its staff and let them do their work unheeded.
As Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube noted, the commission’s reluctance to back its own staff and its blatant plan to steer them away from potentially politically treacherous waters began when Mayor Kirk Caldwell appointed three retired judges to the commission at nearly the same time — Marks, Rikki May Amano and Allene Suemori.
Now it’s becoming clear that there needs to be change at the ethics commission, even major reform that could be put in place by the voters through a charter amendment.
For starters, Marks and the other ethics commissioners that were around at the time of the Totto shaming — Amano, Suemori and Michael Lilly — should step down. They were the ones who required Totto and his staff to record their daily activities on time sheets every six minutes. Caldwell has already made the mistake of reappointing Amano to another term, an error he should not repeat when Marks’ and Suemori’s terms end in December.
While the mayor has denied being involved in meddling with the ethics commission, events strongly suggest otherwise. His own corporation counsel, Donna Leong, was deeply involved in directing how the commission staff could operate, even imposing restrictions on the commission’s budget.
Which leads to another good idea: The commission should be moved out from under the city administration’s control and set up as a separate, independent entity. Some have suggested establishing a local version of the inspector general’s office to handle more complicated concerns about government practices.
Even before that could happen, the commission needs to make its work much more accessible. In recent years it has reduced its meetings from monthly to every other month and moved its office to a much less accessible location at Kapalama Hale, near Honolulu Community College. It took down its Facebook page. Those actions should be reversed.
The Kealoha corruption convictions and the continuing federal investigations into top-ranking city officials should have taught us an important lesson: Ethics and integrity are concepts to be highly valued and encouraged. Not short-changed for political expediency.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair and Jessica Terrell. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.