County prosecutors in Hawaii want to see harsher sentences for public officials who try to defraud the government and also are calling for better resources to investigate such crimes.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, a group tasked with beefing up government standards and ethics, on Wednesday heard from FBI agents, former state attorneys general and county prosecutors during an hours-long forum to generate more ideas to crack down on public corruption in Hawaii.

One recommendation came from three of Hawaii’s four county prosecutors, who suggested that the commission consider proposing new laws that would carve out additional criminal penalties for public employees who try to commit fraud, embezzle the government or accept bribes.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm speaks to the media about the recent HPD preliminary trial which Judge Domingo found the lack of probable cause to take the case to trial.
Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm as well as prosecutors from Kauai and Maui counties called for greater punishments for public officials who break the law. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The details still need to be worked out by state and county prosecutors. Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm said those offices are working on a package of bills to introduce to the Legislature in 2023. The standards commission also has until December to come up with its own recommendations.

The prosecutors from Honolulu, Kauai and Maui counties asked that the commission call for mandatory jail time for any public servant found guilty of a white collar crime. As it stands now, those convicted of white collar crimes could face reduced sentences at the discretion of judges or the state paroling authority.

At the federal level, prison time is almost always guaranteed. Just last week former state Sen. J. Kalani English was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison for taking part in a bribery scheme.

“When it comes to political corruption, white collar corruption – that’s a cost benefit analysis,” Alm said. “If they know they could go to prison, I think that could really help.”

Alm, a former U.S. attorney for Hawaii, also suggested aligning state laws on public corruption with those used by federal prosecutors to bring charges in Hawaii.

The Department of Justice has led high-profile investigations into public corruption involving employees in the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting, former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro’s office, the Legislature and the Honolulu Police Department.

Alm also asked for more resources to beef up white collar crime units in the state. Lawmakers provided additional funds to the state Attorney General’s Office this year to create new units that could investigate white collar crimes and human trafficking.

Kauai Prosecutor Rebecca Like, who ran her first campaign last year, also suggested the commission look to reform areas of the state’s campaign finance laws dealing with lobbyists and large donations.

Maui Prosecutor Andrew Martin also supports harsher sentences for public employees. He recalled one case where a defense attorney tried to argue for leniency because his client was a public servant.

“I couldn’t have disagreed more strongly with that sentiment,” Martin said.

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