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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, May 25, 2002

Honolulu police oppose liquor commission role

By Brandon Masuoka
Advertiser Staff Writer

The city plans to hire temporary replacements next week for the Honolulu Liquor Commission inspectors indicted by a federal grand jury this week on charges of taking bribes from hostess bars.

City Managing Director Ben Lee said yesterday that the city will hire eight workers from the city Department of Human Resources' list of job applicants and, if necessary, retired police officers.

In the meantime, Mayor Jeremy Harris will look into the possibility of turning over the commission's enforcement of liquor rules, as well as investigations of violations, to the Honolulu Police Department, Lee said.

But Police Chief Lee Donohue yesterday criticized the idea of his department's taking over the commission's enforcement role, calling it a "knee-jerk reaction."

"I think the problems are systemic and I don't think it's right to take problems from one person and give it to another," Donohue said.

The city officials' remarks came after a federal indictment, made public Thursday, issued allegations of one of the most widespread corruption cases involving a Hawai'i government agency. Six current and two retired inspectors are accused of taking about $11,500 from 45 hostess bars from October 2000 to December 2001. In return, the inspectors did not enforce liquor laws, the charges said.

"In this case, the foxes were left to guard the hens," said U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo, who called for a better system to enforce Honolulu liquor laws.

Harris issued a statement Thursday saying he feels the commission "should be turned over to HPD." Yesterday, he declined to answer questions about the commission and referred news reporters to the managing director.

Lee told reporters that the city will pursue turning over the commission's enforcement and investigative functions to the police. "Clearly the investigation and enforcement portion would be better suited at HPD."

But Lee said any changes to state law that would allow HPD to take over Liquor Commission duties would be made in the legislative session next year.

In the next few days before the replacements can be hired, Lee said, the Liquor Commission will have to juggle its three or four inspectors on the job. He said the city will expect liquor establishments to follow the law and monitor themselves in the next week.

The replacements would be hired on three-month contracts, he said.

Liquor inspectors have a wide range of duties, including the enforcement of liquor laws that deal with minors and nude dancing.

But the duties also can be considered mundane. Inspectors are responsible for ensuring that timecards for liquor establishment employees are in order, whether a registered manager is on duty during business hours, whether business hours are followed and whether floor plans are accurate. Inspectors also check on complaints of excessive noise and even whether a license is displayed properly.

Chief Donohue said city officials, law enforcement and the Liquor Commission should pinpoint the corruption problem alleged in the indictments and see whether it can be corrected before asking HPD to take over the enforcement duties.

"I think what we have to do is look into the system and find out what went wrong and see if we can fix it there, rather than give us enforcement of regulatory ordinances that's just going to diffuse our efforts," Donohue said.

The chief said he didn't think police should be the ones enforcing liquor-related "regulatory ordinances," such as making sure bartenders are properly licensed and bars close on time. "We have more things to do out there," he said.

The police chief said his department must deal with homeland security and is "strapped pretty thin."

"We have 250 vacancies right now and 300 people who can retire," he said. "To add all of this onto our plate, I don't think is very fair."

In addition, Donohue said that if the system of enforcement of liquor laws is flawed, the most qualified inspectors won't remedy the problem.

"I don't care who you put in there, it's going to go wrong again," Donohue said. "You're just setting yourself up for failure."

The indictments of six current inspectors, combined with recent retirements, an illness and a death, have stripped the field investigative staff down from 15 to about five. The enforcement night-shift staff, which accounted for 10 of the 15 positions, is operating with one full-time investigator and two contract hires, said Wayne Luke, a private attorney specializing in liquor law.

Six inspectors charged in the federal indictment have been placed on administrative leave, authorities said. They are Samuel K.Y. Ho, Kenneth L. Wright, Eduardo C. Mina, Arthur M. Andres, Collin M. Oshiro and William B. Richardson Jr. The other two are retired inspector supervisors — David K.H. Lee and Harvey Hiranaka .

The city will need to determine how to deal with Liquor Commission cases investigated by those who have been placed on administrative leave. City spokeswoman Carol Costa said a meeting is planned Tuesday to determine how to handle the cases.

Five of the inspectors showed up in court yesterday and pleaded not guilty. The other three have not yet been arrested.

Trial is scheduled for July 23.

Taxpayers likely will pay to defend the eight inspectors. Under state law, the city will pay attorney's fees for investigators and other commission employees who are sued or prosecuted for acts done in the line of duty.

Advertiser staff writers Rod Ohira and Curtis Lum contributed to this report.