Beth Fukumoto: It's Scary To Speak Up Against A Fellow Lawmaker - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at

There’s something wrong when whistleblowers and victims fear getting in trouble but those who misbehave do not.

Ethics have been at the top of mind lately for political obsessives like me. With ongoing investigations into corruption and bribery, it’s hard to ignore Hawaii’s historical lack of penalties and enforcement of ethics laws that govern public officials. This year, a lot of thought has gone into how we can improve.

The final report from the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct led by former judge Daniel Foley offered several proposals to strengthen our laws and increased penalties for wrongdoers. Legislators responded by introducing the commission’s bills and passing many of them. Foley himself called it a “remarkable accomplishment.”

But, just as laws are only as good as their enforcement, enforcement only works if people are willing to report violations. And speaking up isn’t easy.

In 2018, my final year in the state House, I received a call from the Ethics Commission. It was investigating a sexual harassment complaint against former Speaker Joe Souki and my name came up during interviews as someone who may have experienced the same treatment. I told him that if the lead complainant needed someone to stand with her I would. Her story sounded all too familiar. But, I explained, I’d struggle to detail any specific experiences of my own.

In truth, I chose to forget those details as many women do. When I found myself uncomfortable, I told myself I was overreacting. I was scared that speaking up would be held against me and hurt my ability to do my job so I pushed it to the back of my mind. The bottom line is that the lead complainant, former Director of Human Services Rachael Wong, was immeasurably braver than I was.

When discussing the incident, Wong explained, “I felt powerless to do anything due to the risk of retaliation against me, the department, and the executive branch.” Her fear is what most people face when they consider reporting any ethical violation by a person in power.

Both chambers of the Legislature have rules and promise to be as confidential as possible when it comes to offering whistleblowers anonymity, but accusers’ names often still manage to leak out. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Ethics Commission offers whistleblowers anonymity, and the House and Senate both promise to be as confidential as possible. Yet, as investigations get underway, accusers’ names still manage to be passed on in whispers through the Capitol halls. Secrets are political currency. It’s a fact constantly in conflict with good government.

The Cost Of Speaking Up

Whether or not they become the subject of gossip, a complainant may have to wait through a lengthy investigation. They may need to sit on the sidelines or continue to work with the person they accused. And, if their complaints don’t stick, they have little recourse. It’s not easy to unseat an elected official.

This is the crux of our ethics problems whether we’re discussing sexual harassment or bribery and corruption. The cost of speaking up is a lot higher than the cost of staying silent.

An obvious contributor to that cost is our lack of competitive elections. The best way to ensure consequences for badly behaved politicians, in general, is an engaged voter base that demands ethical behavior.

Earlier this month, I found myself Googling: “Can a person imprisoned for a felony become president?” The answer is: yes, if voters allow it. Our system is designed to represent what voters want and uphold what they value.

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In lieu of a massive shift in our voting behaviors, what else can we do to fix the problem?

Clarify Expectations Of Behavior

First, we need to redefine expectations of behavior by making them more explicit.

Standards of conduct for legislators are enshrined in law as well as the Senate and House rules. The foundation for those standards is fair treatment, the idea that a legislator should not use their public office to advance private interests or gain unwarranted privileges.

In the past five years, six out of six ethics complaints against sitting elected officials resulted in investigations and penalties for violation of Hawaii’s Fair Treatment Law.

Most of us know that a legislator is breaking this rule by making money or receiving perks based on their position. But fair treatment violations can range from misuse of the state seal to a campaign link on official social media accounts to sexual harassment.

Legislators, lobbyists and the public should have easy access to the list of the standards expected of public officials with examples of what a violation looks like.

The Public Access Room link on the state’s legislative website provides useful information on how citizens should engage the Legislature and what to expect at the Capitol. It even includes tips on where to park. Listing the behaviors expected of a public official would be an easy way to reinforce the standards and nudge everyone in the right direction.

More Accessibility

Second, the Legislature should make its reporting processes clear and readily available.

The Senate and House both define complaint processes for any form of legislative misconduct in administrative manuals and rules. They include specific anti-harassment policies on their websites. The Senate president designates an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer who can manage complaints. The House has a Select Committee on Standards of Conduct, which is meant to do the same. But, when I looked for it, I couldn’t find any method of contacting or even identifying those designees.

The Ethics Commission offers an anonymous, online complaint form. The University of Hawaii provides online reporting portals for discrimination and gender-based violence. The Legislature’s award-winning website has plenty of options for reaching out to legislators. It should also include a prominent link for filing complaints.

The crux of our ethics problems is that the cost of speaking up is higher than the cost of staying silent. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

Strengthen Directives

Lastly, the Legislature needs to strengthen its directives for reporting misconduct.

Anti-harassment policies in both legislative bodies clearly state that any employee, including elected officials, “shall” report instances of harassment, including those they’ve witnessed directed at others.

Presumably, a person who witnesses but doesn’t report harassment is guilty of neglecting their duties, but I don’t remember that ever coming up in mandatory training. While it does need to be highlighted more frequently, mandating reporting is a great practice.

The Legislature should expand that beyond harassment to any code of conduct violations. If employees know that they are required to report ethics violations, they are more likely to do so.

It would feel safer because speaking up would no longer be just a brave choice, it would be a mandate. It would help to create an expectation that it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure corruption and misconduct doesn’t take root in our government.

Since 2018, our social expectations about sexual harassment have shifted tremendously in the right direction. We are not all the way there. But today, at the very least, I hear fewer excuses for bad behavior, more apologies for past offenses and stronger support for victims who shed light on sexual misconduct. Our state would be an even better place if the same shift happened for all abuses of power.

The bottom line is that if politicians aren’t afraid of the consequences, but whistleblowers are, we should all consider what we’ve done to reinforce that. The Legislature needs to implement policies that make it easier for people to keep each other accountable and harder to look the other way when misconduct happens. As citizens, we need to make it clear that we expect them to do so.

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About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at

Latest Comments (0)

This mentality is prevalent in Hawaii. You're 2,500 miles away from the mainland and 2-3 hours behind the time zone. And you're a small state. The reality is. Hardly anyone cares about what happens in HI unless of course there's a disaster like Lahaina or false alarm missile attack. Since 1972, Hawaii has become a "closed business" market. Restrictions towards startup or newcomers wanting to make a life in "paradise." Unless of course, you got the kala to make other look away ... support the Union, support the Democrats. Do things our way. Then you'll make it here. Go against us, you may not last. For the anti-whistleblowers. How the hell do you guys sleep at night? How the hell can you say you are doing the right thing? I blew the whistle on a former employer despite family living in HI advising not to. It wasn't the money. It was DOING THE RIGHT THING.Despite being the 50th State, my former home state acts like a Banana Republic.

808Refugee · 2 weeks ago

I'm not the world's smartest person, but isn't the US government set up to have a system of checks and balances? Wasn't / Isn't Ms. Fukumoto doing exactly what she was / is supposed to be doing?

808gecko808 · 2 weeks ago

It's the same with the U.S. Congress, if a lawmaker doesn't fall in line, they get ostracized, left off committees, cutoff from party campaign donation funds and basically iced out from the rest of the party.

Kaimuki · 2 weeks ago

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