Public Corruption Directly Undermines Faith In Hawaii’s Government - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Robert Harris

Robert Harris is executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. He is a former director of public policy at Sunrun, and a former director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

My father took me hiking up Mount Olomana at an early age. I suspect that’s where I fell in love with nature.

Opinion article badge

That memory stayed with me and eventually became a passion and interest in preserving Hawaii’s fragile environment.

That’s also why I care about ethics in government. Protecting our island ecosystem depends upon honest leaders, who can appropriately balance the needs of our economy and environment. Corrupt leaders no longer act in the best interest of the public.

Put simply, a healthy environment depends on a governmental system run with integrity.

For that matter, most public policy issues – such as health care, improving education, or strengthening the social safety net — depend on a fair governmental system. For a democratic system to truly work, it must serve in the public’s interest.

With the public corruption charges recently brought against two state legislators and several county employees, many have become disillusioned with government. Some have reasonably adopted a “vote the buggahs out” attitude or used this news as a reason to disengage from the democratic process (such as not voting in the most recent election).

This disillusionment, while disappointing, is not surprising. Elected officials and state employees are supposed to serve and act on behalf of the public-at-large. Public corruption directly undermines faith in our governmental system.

Former state legislators J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen admitted to accepting tens of thousands of dollars to promote or kill legislation favorable to a contractor. 

As the executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, I was recently asked if my job was to help maintain public confidence in government. My knee-jerk response was to say, “no.” I said my job was to advise state employees about ethics and, when necessary, enforce the state Ethics Code and the state lobbyists law.

The Ethics Code includes laws relating to the acceptance and reporting of gifts, confidential information, fair treatment (the prohibited misuse of official position), conflicts of interests, state contracts, and post-employment restrictions, along with financial disclosure requirements.

Last year, the commission responded to 851 requests for advice from state legislators, employees, lobbyists, and members of the public. The hard-working commission members and staff additionally investigated 123 complaints and resolved 10 charges publicly.

And yet, my knee-jerk answer was wrong.

A core reason why Hawaii has an Ethics Commission is to maintain public confidence in our system of government. Ronald Reagan said that “democracy is not a fragile flower; still it needs cultivating.”

Enforcement of our civil and criminal laws is a necessary step to help “cultivate” democracy and help restore public trust in our government and its officials.

To some extent, the recent news of public corruption is an example of government working properly: truly corrupt and illegal activity is being caught and publicly called out. But the severity of recent public corruption charges demonstrates more work is needed.

The Ethics Commission is actively developing several specific legislative policy changes for consideration next year in the Hawaii Legislature. While none of these concepts will magically prevent all violations in the future, they cumulatively represent solid steps toward a more transparent system that reduces the potential for unethical conduct and helps restore public confidence in our democratic system.

For example, the Ethics Commission proposes to directly prohibit nepotism: expressly eliminating the ability for state employees to hire or supervise a spouse or family member. A bright-line approach to nepotism will help address a practice that, from a public perspective, reasonably appears unethical.

Another proposal is to increase transparency around legislators’ financial connections with lobbyists or businesses that hire lobbyists. Legislators are, by design, part-time employees.

Although the Ethics Code does not prohibit legislators from having outside employment, some legislators may work with, or be employed by, businesses that have a direct interest in legislation. The public has a right to know of these potential conflicts of interests, especially when a substantial amount of money is involved.

Like all of us, I care about the future of Hawaii.

Further, when conflicts of interests exist, legislators should recuse themselves from discussing, deliberating, or voting on that issue. Many may remember a John Oliver skit blasting Hawaii legislators for finding “no conflict” in a vote over 10-cent fees for plastic checkout bags, when a legislator was a paid consultant for a plastic bag manufacturing association.

Another Ethics Commission proposal would make recusal a requirement when a financial conflict exists, or where a reasonable person would perceive a conflict.

Like all of us, I care about the future of Hawaii. I want to see great decisions by leaders who genuinely care about the public’s interest first and foremost.

The Hawaii Constitution states that “public officers and employees must exhibit the highest standards of ethical conduct.”

I hope you will join the Ethics Commission and me in pushing for common-sense principles that will hold the nearly 60,000 state employees and elected officials to this standard and commitment. Let’s restore confidence in government together.

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: It's Time To Have Uncomfortable Conversations About Homelessness

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Robert Harris

Robert Harris is executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. He is a former director of public policy at Sunrun, and a former director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Latest Comments (0)

Like all political systems, corruption will always be present, Hawaii being no exception. Our issue, is that state and city government has become one of the biggest economic drivers in our, productionless state, we have no other economy aside from the military and tourism. The latter only takes money out of the state after exploiting it's natural gifts to the point of exhaustion. Government on the other hand, runs off the taxes from both industries and redistributes that money to connected businesses and union labor. These two entities exert tremendous influence over government officials through money and endorsements. As seen again with Green's victory this past election. A vicious cycle, where a select few get there way and the public can only watch and pay into a jaded system that's broken.

wailani1961 · 10 months ago

Who's introducing the 'no nepotism' bill in 2023?

Haleiwa_Dad · 10 months ago

I find disconcerting here the reference to Reagan's speech - Democracy is actually a very fragile flower - as we have seen attacks on Democracy by Citizens United, election denialism, Jan 6 insurrection, and voter suppression. Reagan's legacy contributed to the dismantling of democracy, with "Government is the problem." at his first presidential inaugural. The statement soon became the mantra of the American conservative movement. But if government by the people is " the" problem, what is the alternative? By the rich? Governments make mistakes. A core principle of a democratic republic is the ability to throw the rascals out when they make a mess of things. Saying that government itself is the problem is to undermine democracy itself. Reagan’s term had an infamous list of scandals and corruption: The Iran-Contra affair, The HUD scandal, Lobbying Scandal, EPA Scandal and many others. 138 administration officials had been convicted, indicted, or had been suspect in investigations for official misconduct and/or criminal violations. In terms of his Cabinet-Level Appointees was the worst ever. "Trickle down" only made the rich richer. Human rights suffered under Reagan.

Chris · 10 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.