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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

State favors should not go to highest bidder

As long as there have been governors, there have been lavish "goodwill" and "trade" missions to foreign destinations.

In this, the current Lingle administration is no different.

But under the entrepreneurial and business-oriented focus of Ted Liu, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the practice has reached new levels.

As reported by staff writer Sean Hao, Liu has solicited high-end VIP sponsorships for overseas trips from a number of local businesses. For $50,000, the businesses would receive prime attention at the various events and promotions associated with the trips, would gain special access to limited attendance meetings with top officials and would see their "brand" eagerly promoted by the state.

That undoubtedly adds up to a good deal for the companies involved and defrays costs that might otherwise be borne by the taxpayers.

But it also raises several troublesome issues.

First, the state has declined to reveal precisely who has signed up for this "Title Sponsor" program and how much they contributed. Liu says he is considering making this information public.

Transparency is absolutely mandatory. The public has a right to know who has gained access to the state's favors in this way and what, precisely, they are getting in return.

The more troublesome issue has to do with the clear inference that there is a quid pro quo involved. Anyone willing to pay his travel expenses and a small mission fee is entitled to go on these trade missions.

But those willing to pay much more are told they would get extra attention and promotion and extra access to key meetings through the courtesy of the governor and her staff.

The message inferred here is that the Lingle administration will work extra hard on your behalf for a price. The intent might well be honorable, but the message is mixed.

Liu should follow through on his plan to make public a list of who paid, and how much they paid, for these missions. And the disclosure should include a precise itemization of what they got in return.