A statewide commission wants Hawaii’s county ethics watchdogs to have more funding to monitor, and if need be, investigate public officials after a string of public corruption cases put a spotlight on government ethics and transparency.

Unlike the Honolulu Ethics Commission, with 11 full-time staff and a total budget over $650,000, the ethics boards for Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island operate with either no funds or very little to cover travel or food expenses. Their staffs are usually limited to a secretary and attorney in the county’s corporation counsel office, both of whom may have other responsibilities outside of helping the all-volunteer ethics board.

A recent proposal from the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct asks the Legislature to appropriate one-time grants for the county ethics commissions. The amounts have not been determined yet.

State funding for what is normally a county function could be a hard sell in the Legislature. Still, state Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Harris, a member of the standards commission, hopes the proposal can start a public dialogue over resources allocated to the county ethics commissions.

27 may 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A new proposal seeks to get more funds to county ethics commissions. Neighbor island boards have few resources to carry out their duties. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Many of the recent corruption scandals have come at the county level.

On the Big Island, a former county housing official pleaded guilty to taking nearly $2 million worth of bribes and kickback from developers. On Kauai, a former county councilman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for leading a meth ring while in office. In Maui County, a former county director pleaded guilty to accepting nearly $2 million worth of bribes in a wastewater contracting scheme.

And Oahu has seen a parade of public officials brought before federal authorities including a former police chief, a deputy prosecutor, a former prosecutor, the former mayor’s managing director, a county attorney and former chairman of the Honolulu Police Commission.

“I’m not saying having a well-funded ethics board would prevent (those cases) but something needs to be done at some point,” Harris said. “I’d rather not have more cases blow up before more action is taken.”

A decade ago, the Honolulu Ethics Commission had a staff of three and a budget of about $257,000. Staffing increased steadily over the years.

Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Robert Harris conducts meeting. Mr Foley was absent.
State Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris hopes the proposal spurs the state or counties to get more resources to county ethics commissions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Although the Honolulu commission was stonewalled and faced attacks by former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, a functioning ethics commission can do much to hold public officials to account. For example, the commission investigated Caldwell’s inaugural fundraiser, finding that it pushed the boundaries of the city’s ethics and gifts laws.

Staff for the commission increased from six to 11 in 2020, following the convictions of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife Katherine in a wide-ranging corruption probe. Staff includes attorneys and investigators.

But the neighbor islands allocate few resources to their commissions. County budget documents show that, for the most recent fiscal year, Maui County allocated no money for its ethics board, Kauai paid about $1,000 for airfare to a conference and parking for board members, and the Big Island had set aside $5,300 for board expenses.

Larry Heintz, chairman of the Hawaii County Ethics Board, joked that some of the most significant discussions about money he could recall have been over whether or not to serve coffee during meetings and keep plate lunches to under $11.95.

Other than refreshments, the county helps pay for gas for members who need to travel long distances on the Big Island for meetings.

“We’re really a shoestring operation,” Heintz said.

But like the other ethics boards, the volunteer members have big-time duties. The county charters dictate that the board shall interpret the code of ethics, render advisory opinions for county employees, initiate complaints of violations of the ethics code, conduct investigations and hold hearings on the investigations.

The county attorneys help the board write opinions based on their decisions and give them legal advice. The attorneys also help review complaints and other documents for the board to consider. For complaints that come from the public against public employees, the board acts as a panel of judges.

“But if it goes to the next level, a formal investigation, then we’re not equipped in any way to do that,” Heintz said.

One recent example was the 2020 decision to charge former Big Island Mayor Harry Kim with ethics violations over his handling of the Mauna Kea protests.

Heintz said that the board wanted to investigate certain actions Kim took in clearing part of Mauna Kea Access Road during protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope. But doing that would have required them to hire a private investigator.

But Heintz isn’t entirely sure he wants things to change. He worries that more staff could make the process more “legalistic.” He spent most of his career dealing with ethical disputes in the medical field.

Mayor Harry Kim makes a point to joint WAM Finance Committees.
A lack of resources made it difficult for the Hawaii County Board of Ethics to launch an investigation into former Mayor Harry Kim. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“And we consider it a failure if lawyers get involved. These are ethical disputes, disputes about communication and understanding and values. I always try to resolve things without going there,” he said.

Instead, as in the case of Kim – who had already lost reelection before the board ruled against him – Heintz said the board “wouldn’t have done more than let the public know the violation of the code of ethics and let the electorate decide.”

Harris, the state ethics director, hopes that more funds to ethics commissions could also help the county provide better services to the public and county employees. The state Ethics Commission has a staff of 10 and assigns an attorney of the day to respond to ethics inquiries from the public and officials.

The statewide standards commission also passed a resolution asking the counties to examine their own government structures to prevent future public corruption cases from occurring.

He hopes additional funding to the county ethics boards could help do that.

“They’re very proud of what they’re doing, and they have done a lot,” Harris said of the volunteer ethics boards. “But they could be doing a lot more.”

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