Commission Addresses “Deep Moral Crisis” in Hawai‘i Government

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Keliʻi Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

In response to widespread government corruption in Hawaiʻi, the State House of Representatives recently formed the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct.

While the commission is focused on confronting unethical behavior among state and local elected officials in general, publication of their findings coincides with OHA’s release of a report by forensic auditing firm Plante Moran. That report, released in Nov. 2022, identified evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse in numerous OHA financial transactions between 2012 and 2016 worth over $7 million.

The report issued by the commission states that Hawaiʻi has experienced “high-profile acts of criminal conduct on each island” and concluded that Hawaiʻi’s government is in “a deep moral crisis” that “exists throughout each corner of the state.”

To address the crisis, the commission has generated 30 legislative proposals intended to reshape Hawaiʻi’s laws on issues related to ethics and corruption. While these measures are of value for all government agencies, many can be directly applied to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). These proposals can supplement the many reforms which, to the credit of OHA’s Board of Trustees, have already been implemented at OHA.

Some of the commission’s bold proposals include the following legislative reforms:

  1. The establishment of a new criminal offense for fraud at the state level similar to federal criminal statutes. This may promote broader accountability for individuals involved in fraud such as the incidents that occurred at OHA.
  2. The establishment of an Office of the Public Advocate and the publication of a “bill of rights” for the public which would “embody the ideals of respect, fairness, openness and dignity” in the legislative process. Specifically related to OHA, the proposed new office may empower OHA beneficiaries and Hawaiian constituents to demand greater transparency and accountability from elected officials.
  3. The requirement of greater disclosure of relationships between legislators and lobbyists in addition to identifying bills, budget items, and programs that are supported or opposed by lobbyists. This proposal could be applicable to OHA given the numerous financial transactions flagged as conflicts of interest.
  4. The implementation of term limits for state legislators which prohibits them from serving no more than 16 years in their lifetime in either the House or the Senate. There is some evidence that term limits may prevent political corruption.

Emeritus Law Professor Randy Roth, a member of the commission and co-author of Broken Trust, has previously testified before OHA’s Board of Trustees concerning OHA’s LLCs. Recently, regarding the ethical condition of the government in Hawaiʻi, Roth said, “rather than engage in willful blindness…we’ve got to engage in robust dialogue, discussion, debate, as to what this means and what can be done about it.”

It is sobering that the commission has labeled the level of government corruption in Hawaiʻi as a “deep moral crisis.” Fortunately, the commission’s report is a step in the direction of resolving this moral crisis.

For our part at OHA, we have a sacred kuleana to ensure that all our practices are pono. That is why we must take appropriate action and deal with the evidence of fraud, waste and abuse identified by the Plante Moran report. We now have a great opportunity to serve our beneficiaries and be a model of integrity to other government agencies.

Holo mua!