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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 24, 2002

Harris: Liquor panel should be under police

 •  Liquor inspectors took bribes, indictment says

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mayor Jeremy Harris said yesterday the Liquor Commission should be turned over to the Honolulu Police Department in the wake of the federal indictment charging eight current and former commission inspectors on bribery and extortion counts.

Harris said he has been talking with Police Chief Lee Donohue about the idea for a year. The mayor said he and the chief will continue to study the "large number of organizational, staffing and (city) charter issues" involved.

Harris' statement came just hours after City Council member John Henry Felix recommended that the Police Department take over liquor law enforcement.

Felix, chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, said the indictments "cast a cloud over the entire agency." He said the transfer could be made within 60 to 90 days, with police helping out the commission in the meantime on an emergency basis.

But Capt. Kevin Lima, executive officer of the HPD Narco/Vice Division, said yesterday that police already conduct investigations and work with the Liquor Commission.

"With homeland security (since the Sept. 11 attacks), we're limited and it would be difficult to add on more responsibility," he said.

Felix said the Police Department would have to create a new unit to address the new responsibility, but would have "at least 1,600 officers to draw from," allowing officers to serve as inspectors for perhaps only six months or a year.

The primary problem with the present system is that many of the commission's 15 inspectors, monitoring 1,415 licensees, visit the same establishments year after year, he said.

That means they are recognized by and may develop relationships with some of the managers or owners, relationships which could lead to the kinds of bribery and extortion charged in the indictments, Felix said.

"All too often investigators repeatedly call on certain establishments, and that sets up an opportunity for mischief," Felix said.

The problems are worst at hostess bars and strip clubs, where inspectors are supposed to enforce laws banning intimate contact between employees and patrons, he said. "You have money, liquor and sex: all the ingredients for mischief are there."

Felix said he will immediately introduce resolutions asking the administration to "study the viability of having the Police Department take over" the liquor inspection function.

He said he believes that the city needs to double the number of inspectors and use police officers to staff the positions.

Increased costs of better enforcement of liquor laws would be paid by the licensees, whose permit fees could be increased if necessary, Felix said.

The Police Department is already assisting the commission with certain sting operations, he said.

Felix said Harris had rejected repeated requests to increase pay and qualifications for inspectors in past years.

The councilman said he and the commission had for years lamented "that the investigators are really at a clerical level, really do not have the qualifications or the training, and are not properly compensated."

He said he had brought the matter to the administration's attention, "almost every year, and they give me all the reasons why it can't be done, the same old stuff."

Harris' spokeswoman Carol Costa said that Felix and commission administrator Wally Weatherwax had suggested such upgrades to Harris before, but that the commission hadn't followed up with necessary paperwork.

While Felix said inspectors' starting pay is $2,289 per month, Costa said most inspectors are in higher classifications that have salaries ranging from $29,712 to $51,492 a year.

Earlier yesterday, city attorney David Arakawa congratulated authorities on the investigation. He said Harris' office had asked police to investigate inspectors last year, in response to complaints.

Advertiser staff writer Rod Ohira contributed to this report.

Reach Walter Wright at wwright@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8054.