You might think the stunning parade of criminal wrongdoing in state, city and county government in recent years would inspire a robust slate of reform proposals. But that hasn’t happened in the campaign for governor so far.

Consider: A former Honolulu police chief was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice along with his estranged wife, a former deputy city prosecutor. A former elected city prosecutor was indicted for conspiracy to commit fraud, and a Honolulu architect admitted to paying more than $100,000 in bribes to city permitting employees.

Two former state lawmakers pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to influence legislation. A former Kauai county councilman pleaded guilty to methamphetamine trafficking in an enterprise linked to a prison gang, and a former Big Island county housing specialist admitted to accepting nearly $2 million in bribes. A former Big Island county council chairman and two-time candidate for mayor was sent to prison for embezzlement and bribery.

Honolulu Civil Beat's Know your candidate with gubernatorial candidates Duke Aiona and right, Josh Green.
Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, left, and Lt. Gov. Josh Green disagree on many issues. But despite recent scandals, the issue of public corruption has not played a huge role in the governor’s race this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In response to that long nightmare, Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Republican former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona have offered a short, tepid list of reform proposals that can mostly be summarized in a sentence: Aiona advocates for the election of more Republicans to clean up Hawaii government, and both Green and Aiona support term limits for state lawmakers.

Green also floated his own version of campaign finance reform that would involve providing candidates with free TV time so they don’t need to raise so much money to finance their campaigns.

When faced with similar outbursts of corruption, other jurisdictions have responded more forcefully. The Watergate scandal resulted in far-reaching federal reforms, and New York state overhauled its campaign finance system after a series of crimes and convictions there.

‘Seems Like A Lot Of Lip Service’

In Hawaii, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele this year offered a list of campaign finance and other proposals as the centerpiece of his last-minute bid for governor, but the corruption issue largely faded into the background after Kahele lost the Democratic primary.

Otherwise, the response of the gubernatorial nominees this year to the corruption issue “seems like a lot of lip service,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Moore said that may be partly because the issue may actually be a liability for Green since most of those involved in the scandals were Democrats.

Aiona raises the ethics issue more frequently than Green, citing corruption as a reason to vote for Republicans to restore balance in state politics. But he is spare with specifics, mainly arguing that voters need to elect more Republicans to create a more balanced political landscape, and to dilute the overwhelming dominance the Democrats enjoy today.

“For Green strategically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend much time talking about ethics because he’s the Democratic nominee for governor, and I think people associate these ethics violations with kind of a political class of Democrats in Hawaii,” Moore said.

“Talking about ethics problems, that’s not helpful for someone who’s lieutenant governor, was a longtime state senator, and has been in office much more recently than Duke Aiona,” he said. “My guess is that this is just a political decision, that talking about ethics problems might highlight concerns in voters’ minds that they would rather avoid entirely.”

Former Hawaii lawmakers J. Kalani English, left, and Ty Cullen pleaded guilty earlier this year to accepting bribes. 

When asked about his ethics proposals before the Aug. 13 primary, Green said he supports “any kind of commonsense public financing” of campaigns, without offering any specifics. Hawaii already has a very limited public funding program, while some other jurisdictions have more generous public funding options.

However, Green said he’s concerned a more expansive system of public funding could be trumped by rich candidates who could spend millions of dollars to self-fund their campaigns, which he said would be unfair to the publicly funded candidates.

As an alternative, he suggested it may be better to make the public airwaves available to any candidate who meets a basic standard of support, such as gathering the signatures of 10% of those eligible to vote in a race. That would drastically reduce the costs of campaigning, which would reduce the need for fundraising.

The state could compensate commercial television stations for their airtime, and Green suggested that system would be “the great equalizer.” But he acknowledged federal action would likely be required to establish such a system, saying it is “very unlikely” that would actually happen.

Green has been by far the most prolific fundraiser of this election cycle, raising more than $3.7 million for this year’s campaign.

Gubernatorial candidate Dr. Josh Green campaigns and waves to drivers at the intersection of the Pali Highway and Vineyard.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green supports term limits and “any kind of commonsense public financing” of campaigns. But hasn’t offered many specifics about how to accomplish reform. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

When asked to revisit the ethics issue last week, Green replied with a written statement.

“If elected governor, my administration will maintain the highest standards for ethics, transparency, and accountability, and a zero tolerance policy on corruption or any unethical or illegal behavior,” he said in the statement.

“My Attorney General will work with state and federal law enforcement officials to investigate any evidence of corruption in government, and I will sign into law sound legislation that comes before me establishing tougher ethics rules for state officials, term limits for state legislators, and commonsense campaign finance reform including strengthening our system of public funding for campaigns,” he added.

Term Limits

In a Civil Beat candidate questionnaire, he also promised to “fight to provide the State Ethics Commission with more resources so that they can be a good watchdog for all of us.”

One specific change that both Green and Aiona support is term limits for state lawmakers, which some supporters believe could help curb unethical behavior. Term limits were endorsed by 70% of likely voters in a 2018 poll by Honolulu Civil Beat.

However, even reformers are raising questions about whether term limits would help.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, a panel created this year to propose ethics and other reforms, was barely able to muster the necessary votes on Wednesday to move a term limits proposal forward. On the contrary, one member raised the possibility that term limits could make corruption even worse in Hawaii.

“People are angry about this, and you don’t see that level of anger and outrage expressed by the leaders as much.” — political analyst Colin Moore

Janet Mason of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii said Wednesday that commission members did a search of the political science research on term limits, and “we didn’t find any evidence the term limits prevent corruption.”

Robert Harris, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said he opposes term limits because he believes the they could increase public corruption by making newer lawmakers more dependent on special interests to raise campaign funds.

Harris also warned that lawmakers who are being forced out of office by term limits may begin looking for new jobs during their time in office. “That’s only going to increase the influence again of special interests, and/or create the opportunities for conflicts of interest or fair treatment concerns,” he said.

The commission finally voted 4-3 to recommend the term limits proposal to the Legislature, which will have the option of putting the issue on the ballot in the 2024 election. But even getting the issue on the ballot will be a heavy lift, because lawmakers have historically been reluctant to consider the idea.

Bills introduced proposing a constitutional amendment to set term limits for lawmakers died without a hearing or vote in 2021, and a resolution that proposed a study of term limits died without a hearing this year.

A Question Of Balance

Aiona has focused mainly on the ethics issue in his argument that Democrat-dominated Hawaii needs a more balanced government.

“It’s the most effective way of holding people accountable and breaking this grip that one party has on government,” Aiona said in a recent interview.

The Democratic and Republican parties will then act as a check on one another, which helps to keep both sides honest, he said. His message is that people need to “vote and vote intelligently.”

Aiona said he is not opposed to public funding of campaigns, but like Green he offered no specific proposals for modifying Hawaii’s existing, modest public funding program.

He also said he would “definitely be open” to a ban or new restrictions on political action committees, and favors more strict policing of the practice of bundling campaign contributions. By bundling, he means the practice of having multiple executives or officers of a single business or organization make the maximum legal donations to the same candidate.

Duke Aiona announces his run for governor at the Capitol Rotunda.
Duke Aiona has argued the state needs a better balance between the Democratic and Republican parties to keep public corruption in check. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Aiona, a lawyer and a former state judge, said he has long been aware Hawaii has a corruption problem, and he recalled an incident many years ago when he discovered a bag with a large sum of cash inside a brown paper bag in the men’s room in a local establishment.

“I couldn’t line it up with any particular candidate, but where I found it was where political activity happens, I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

That happened about 40 years ago before he became involved in politics, and he said he turned the money in to “an office that was in that area that I knew that they would take care of it.” He assumed that office would contact police, he said.

“How do you combat that? I have no idea,” he said.

Aiona said he cannot imagine any tweak to the state ethics laws that would make a significant difference in the behavior of public officials who are inclined to accept bribes.

“I don’t know of any specific thing in ethics that’s going to change behavior, because that’s what you’re doing, you’re trying to legislate behavior, and that just doesn’t work,” he said. “We know that. We’ve got laws against stealing and murdering and assaulting people, and people still do it.”

Moore said he agrees with Aiona’s idea that Hawaii needs more balance between the parties but said something is missing from candidates’ discussion of corruption and what to do about it.

“People are angry about this, and you don’t see that level of anger and outrage expressed by the leaders as much, except Kahele,” he said.

In particular, Moore said he is surprised Aiona has not hammered harder on the corruption issue.

“I can’t explain why Duke hasn’t taken this as the central message of his campaign, because that’s where he’s strongest, that’s where the Republicans are strongest, and if I were him, that’s what I would be saying all day, every day.”

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