In the decade before federal investigators charged five permitting employees for bribery, the Honolulu Ethics Commission warned the Department of Planning and Permitting about questionable behavior by staff and lax oversight that could lead to abuses of power.
The city watchdog agency investigated the department several times after it received numerous complaints about a pay-to-play culture, documents show. Commission attorneys raised concerns about “actual or apparent special treatment” given to certain customers, according to a confidential memo the commission sent to DPP in 2012.
“The appearance of special treatment can be just as detrimental as actual special treatment because of the potential for doubt to arise in the mind of the public as to the integrity of the (Permit Issuance) Branch,” the memo states.
Civil Beat obtained the memo and several other investigative documents from 2012 through 2015 through a public records request.
Taken as a whole, the records foreshadow the scandal that erupted earlier this year.
In March, five current and former DPP employees, along with a local architect, were indicted for bribery schemes going back as far as 2012.
Former plans examiner Kanani Padeken and the architect, Bill Wong, pleaded guilty in April. Padeken admitted to expediting Wong’s permits for bribes totaling at least $28,400 from 2017 to 2020, according to her plea agreement. Wong, CEO of Asia Pacific Architectural Consultants, admitted to bribing Padeken as well as her boss, to whom he admitted paying at least $89,205 in 2016 and 2017, his plea agreement states.
Padeken and Wong are each facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. They are scheduled to be sentenced in April, which is when trials for the remaining four defendants are slated to begin.
Before the feds stepped in, the five DPP employees accused of crimes were never disciplined for any wrongdoing, according to their personnel files, obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request. In fact, some contained thank you notes, including one from Wong expressing appreciation for a permit employee’s help expediting a permit.
But the charges were the culmination of years of red flags, the ethics records show.
Between 2007 and 2012, the Honolulu Ethics Commission received at least a half dozen tips about DPP, according to the memo, and at least five investigations were launched between 2012 and 2015, the records show.
“The complaints range from allegations of extortion, bribery, and illegal gifts, to preferential treatment for select customers,” the report states, but the commission was unable to prove any of it. “Because these types of cases are very difficult to prove, they have yielded no ethics violations.”
Still, the commission told DPP leadership about its concerns several times, including in a March 2010 email from then-ethics director Chuck Totto to Wayne Inouye, then DPP’s permit issuance branch supervisor.
But the complaints about special treatment and gifts continued, the memo states. Today, Inouye is one of the defendants awaiting trial for bribery.
Moses Ramos-Kia Tupua, who worked for DPP from 2008 to 2018, said he was interviewed by ethics staff several times during his time there.
Ethics investigations probed the flow of certain plans to particular employees, rumors of bribery and a golf tournament in which DPP employees went home with prizes ranging from gift cards to TVs. Interviews with DPP staff revealed a culture in which DPP leaders explicitly asked vendors to donate “special treats” to its Christmas potluck, according to ethics records.
But no one was ever held accountable, Ramos-Kia Tupua said.
“Nothing ever changed in all those years, so it’s like, what is the point?” the former senior building inspector said. “I think they had every opportunity to address the issue.”
Dean Uchida, the current DPP director appointed by Mayor Rick Blangiardi, said the behavior of the past won’t be tolerated in this administration. An investigator and special master are currently assessing the weaknesses in his department, he said, and other reform efforts are planned or underway.
Uchida wouldn’t say the pay-to-play culture in his department has been rooted out, but he said he’s committed to taking action when wrongdoing is reported.
“I can’t say it’s over at this point,” he said. “But if someone points out something, we’ll investigate it and take action. We’re going to fix the problem.”
In February 2011, someone told the Ethics Commission that a DPP employee was giving special treatment to certain permit applicants.
Those customers were allegedly bypassing the regular intake system and going directly to the staffer to receive expedited building permit application reviews from her and a colleague, according to the complainant, whose name is redacted from the memo.
Ethics Commission investigators examined DPP data and noticed an unusual pattern.
The employee, whose name is also redacted from the report, didn’t take scheduled or drop-in appointments like her peers and yet was submitting about the same number of building permit applications into the system as her colleagues.
The commission also reviewed DPP’s drop box, where clients can leave their plans. A review of drop box records showed that the clerk was not getting all of her cases from there, the memo said.
“This begs the question: Where does (she) get her customers?” the report asks.
The commission also found that the employee assigned all plans from two customers to one particular residential plans reviewer – even when that reviewer wasn’t working.
Overall, the clerk steered a disproportionate number of projects to a single reviewer, the commission found. Over three years, the employee assigned approximately 60% of her customers to one reviewer, 40% to another and none to the third – a violation of DPP policy that required a rotation.
That unequal work distribution resulted in permit review delays, the commission found.
In addition, the employee admitted to receiving gifts of lunch and other food, which customers would give her outside of the office to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the report states.
In interviews with ethics staff, DPP employees also raised concerns about relationships between friends and family that resulted in certain customers never having to wait for their plans’ approval.
Despite the Ethics Commission’s findings, the memo concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to establish an ethics violation. To proceed with ethics charges, the commission must have probable cause, Laurie Wong-Nowinski, the Honolulu Ethics Commission’s assistant executive director, said in an interview.
City ethics rules state that means that there are “facts and circumstances that would persuade a reasonable person to believe that there has been a violation of the standards of conduct.”
The commission couldn’t meet that threshold in this case, Wong-Nowinski said.
“Believe me, we tried,” she said.
Instead, the commission recommended several steps to increase transparency and accountability. It encouraged DPP to keep complete intake logs, require the use of a log sheet to evenly distribute assignments to plans checkers and implement and advertise a policy prohibiting gifts for staff.
The Ethics Commission delivered its report on the cusp of a change in mayoral administrations, Wong-Nowinski said, and she doesn’t recall hearing whether DPP implemented changes.
Ramos-Kia Tupua, who left the department in 2018, said DPP didn’t take any of the commission’s advice.
Civil Beat attempted to reach the last four DPP directors for comment.
Jiro Sumada, who was the acting director of DPP in 2012 and now works for a local construction and project management firm, did not respond to a request for comment.
Civil Beat was unable to reach George Atta, who succeeded Sumada, or Arthur Challacombe, who led DPP in an acting capacity from 2016 to 2017.
Kathy Sokugawa, who was the acting director of DPP from 2017 through 2020, declined to comment.
The Ethics Commission shared concerns with DPP several other times in the last decade, records show.
In October 2012, a DPP employee reported that her coworker had received a troubling phone call four or five years earlier. The caller, “a very irate man,” said he was waiting on a permit for which he had paid another zoning plans examiner a lot of money, an ethics memo states.
The case was closed for lack of evidence, according to the memo.
In another case around the same time, someone alleged that a DPP worker was issuing expedited building permits to a client without proper routing and approvals. But ethics investigators were unable to prove a violation, the memo states.
“Although the evidence has shown that he does issue building permits for partial construction or for construction without plans, there is a loophole in the city’s building code which allows him to do this,” the memo states, adding that the employee did this for other customers as well.
A year later, in October 2013, the Honolulu Ethics Commission investigated DPP again.
A complainant tipped off the commission that over two dozen DPP employees planned to participate in a golf tournament funded by Palekana Permits. The local company offers “permit expediting services” and third-party reviews in which the code compliance of building plans is certified by a licensed private sector professional instead of a DPP employee.
Permitting companies like Palekana are among DPP’s most frequent clients, and the ethics report said some of the DPP employees who participated in the golf event were in a position to approve or deny the company’s permits. The city ethics code prohibits city employees from accepting gifts that are intended to influence them in their duties.
The Ethics Commission had been informed about Palekana’s tournament before, in addition to a lunch the company catered for DPP staff who were unable to attend the event, according to the commission’s closing report on the case. But they were unable to investigate that time because of a lack of resources, the report says.
The 2013 ethics investigation found that 32 DPP employees had attended the golf tournament. All of them paid a $50 fee, less than the usual cost of $109, according to the closing report.
And almost every employee reported that they’d won a prize, ranging from $20 gift cards to televisions worth $650.
One employee, whose name is redacted, told the ethics investigator that the employees paid to play golf, but the sponsor essentially paid them back in prizes and food.
“It is a tournament that has built in the ability to hide the transaction,” the person said, according to the report.
In an interview, Dennis Enomoto, a principal with Palekana, said his company started inviting DPP employees to the tournaments to lift their spirits after they were furloughed. He said the company wasn’t trying to sway them.
“It wasn’t the intent to move projects along,” he said. “It was kind of to see everyone as humans … But after the report, we stopped. We didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
In an ethics interview, one DPP employee said that city leaders condoned and even encouraged an accommodating relationship with certain customers. But times have changed, he said, and DPP “may want to consider stopping the practice of ‘requesting’ vendors to donate special treats for the DPP Christmas potluck.”
“In 1993, it was totally acceptable to go golfing with all the vendors and let them pay for the round,” the interview summary states. “Now he sees that even paying for his golf at a reduced rate still poses a potential conflict and (has the) look of being unreasonable to others.”
That worker wasn’t the only one who felt the tone was set by elected officials and their bosses.
The closing report on the golf tournament concluded: “City employees believed that because the mayor, city council members, and their supervisors attended that it was acceptable.”
Ultimately, only one DPP worker – someone who was caught using a sick day to attend the golf event – became the subject of a public ethics opinion. The person, who reviewed and approved at least 100 of Palekana’s building permit applications in the prior six years, settled the case by admitting wrongdoing and returning their gift card. The person’s name was redacted from the opinion.
Several other city employees would have been found in violation of the ethics code, the opinion states, but they were able to avoid charges by returning their prizes or reimbursing the cost.
In its closing report, dated March 2014, the commission said it would brief DPP on the case, share copies of opinions with the sponsors of the event and city employees and include the topic of golf tournaments in future ethics training.
A few months later, the commission interviewed another DPP inspector who reported preferential treatment and corruption in his department.
A 2015 memo by then-investigator Letha DeCaires said the employee hadn’t provided her with evidence to back up his claims that a colleague was charging a “routing fee” of $450, and the commission didn’t have the resources to investigate further.
However, her memo noted that this was “yet another complaint” about this particular employee being “on the take.”
“Therefore any tips received regarding this behavior should be carefully reviewed for facts that would warrant a serious investigation,” DeCaires wrote.
A few years ago, the FBI filed a public records request with the Honolulu Ethics Commission for investigative information on DPP, Wong-Nowinski said. She’s not sure whether it contributed to the criminal cases.
A few weeks after news of the indictments broke, DPP Director Uchida was called before the Honolulu City Council’s zoning committee to discuss what he was going to do to reform the department.
“We believe that the recent incidents were symptoms of a larger problem,” he said.
He said that the corporation counsel would be assigning an investigator and a special master to DPP to examine the permitting process and internal controls; that he would be instituting a complaint process and a new system of accountability; and that the department would upgrade its technology to streamline the permitting process.
Uchida and Deputy Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna would also be meeting with the department’s roughly 300 employees to build rapport and trust, he told the committee.
“We believe these meetings are key steps in a longterm objective of changing the culture of the department,” he said.
The director said he’s made clear to his department that employees are not to accept gifts of any kind – a rule that was already in place with the prior administration, he said. Uchida said that means “no manapua, no candy, no ice cream, no bottled water, no soda, no anything.”
“Which makes it a little easier on everyone to just say no, because the director says no,” he said.
If anyone observes or suspects any wrongdoing within the department, Uchida is asking them to call him or his deputy, who has already received several calls, he said.
The planned technological overhaul is going to be a difficult and expensive job that Uchida hopes can be accomplished with the help of nearly $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds, he said. That will enable a “total overhaul of the whole permitting process,” he said.
Upgrading DPP’s technology would make it easier to track permits and find trends that could flag problem behavior, Ramos-Kia Tupua said, like an employee frequently expediting the permits of one client over others.
But no funding has been released yet.
The special master, Duane Kashiwai, started working on Aug. 2, according to DPP. The investigator is Joachim Cox, a partner at Cox Fricke who specializes in complex commercial and business disputes and white collar criminal defense, according to his website.
Both the special master and the investigator will provide monthly reports on their findings, Uchida said. Those observations and conclusions will be shared with the mayor, City Council and the public, he said.
“The whole purpose is to kind of run parallel with whatever the federal investigation is, which we don’t know too much about,” Uchida said. “We want to try to get in front of problems before they come up again.”
In an email, a U.S. attorney’s office spokesman declined to comment on the status of the federal investigation or the possibility of charges for additional defendants.
Meanwhile, DPP continues to struggle just with daily demands, Uchida said. The department’s permit issuance branch has a vacancy rate of about 50%, he said.
“We’re trying to move forward the best we can, as fast as we can,” he said. “We just ask the public to be patient. We are committing to making changes here. It may not be as fast as everybody wants, but changes will happen.”
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