As this year’s Legislative session comes to a close, Capitol insiders and outsiders alike will reflect on the past four months and draw their own conclusions. Amidst all of the self-congratulatory posts, newsletters and back-patting for a job well-done, elected officials will attempt to drown out the less-flattering assessments. There is one clear, unambiguous message from our elected officials:
“The law does not apply to us.”
The very same laws and rules that are in place to maintain public trust were consistently and repeatedly violated while powerful legislators like Joe Souki, Sylvia Luke and Donna Kim would call it “a necessary evil”. For these same individuals, rules are mere recommendations – like the “suggested serving size” that is listed on the side of a box of cereal. This comes on the heels of House Majority Leader Scott Saiki’s January promise of improved government transparency. Interestingly, none of the nine bills proposed by the State Ethics Commission were passed by this Legislature.
First and foremost, blame belongs with the media – the “fourth pillar” of our democracy. News outlets like the Honolulu Star-Advertiser rarely offer critical commentary and rarely speak out or question the behavior of our elected officials. They pick the low hanging fruit (Kenoi’s P-card abuse) and look past the more difficult questions (pay-to-play contributions by Navatek to key legislators to advance sweetheart tax credits).
Further fault can be found within government itself. Agencies like the Ethics Commission, the Campaign Spending Commission and even the Auditor rarely call attention to this bad behavior. As guardians of public trust, it behooves these agencies not just to prosecute the low-hanging fruit (like Cachola’s use of campaign funds to purchase an SUV for personal use), but to speak out on behavior that erodes the public trust. Whether the action is an actual violation or a perceived violation of ethics, the erosion of public trust is the same.
The governor will be complicit to this bad behavior when he signs bills like medical marijuana dispensaries into law. Legislators broke the very rules they wrote to govern themselves to advance a dispensary bill by eliminating public hearings, bypassing key committees on public safety, removing the only medical expert (Josh Green) from decision-making and even reviving the bill after it died. Even the self-appointed vanguard of good government, Les Ihara, is expected to vote in favor of this tainted bill.
The most obvious blame, however, lies with elected officials themselves who hide behind legislative immunity and bend the State Constitution to defend their abuse of the public trust. The State Constitution is clear that only the Legislature can investigate misconduct of its own members. Tom Brower was never investigated for “Hammergate” two years ago because the Legislature chose to look the other way. Asking legislators to supervise themselves is like asking a work furlough inmate to come back at the end of the day.
The cycle of unethical behavior continues even in the wake of empty promises by Scott Saiki and Joe Souki. So long as elected officials hold the key to their own accountability, they will continue to erode the public trust until there is nothing left. Until then, the message is clear:
“We don’t follow laws, we make them.”
While this pattern of behavior has occurred for years, below is a listing of some of the corruption that the HoJ Blog has discussed over the last four months:
- Kim and Souki break their own rules to get medical marijuana dispensaries
- Saiki, Luke, Nishimoto and Abercrombie exchange campaign contributions from Navatek in exchange for sweetheart tax breaks.
- House Finance Committee schedules hearing with only one hour notice
- House Finance Committee schedules another hearing with only one hour notice
- Belatti finds time to talk to reporter but fails to give required public notice about committee hearing
- House Leaders buy votes of junior representatives using campaign contributions
- Marijuana advocates erase committee hearings to avoid public comment on dispensaries