Public corruption probes up in 2006
By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Peter Boylan
In the first five months of this year, the FBI's Honolulu office already has investigated about as many allegations of public corruption as it normally does in a whole year.
And while authorities say the number of probes here is not high compared to other jurisdictions, observers say that public perception and faith in government suffers by the mere appearance of impropriety.
"It meets (the public's) expectations of 'all' public officials being corrupt and serves as the foundation for extrapolating the misbehavior of one cop to all cops," said Ronald Becker, a professor of criminal justice at Chaminade University and chairman of the criminal justice program.
"The more mature will recognize that not all cops are bad because some are. Unfortunately, the anti-authority sentiment that travels the country will feed and breed on a single instance to justify their anger at all authority but mostly police because they are the most visible symbol of 'authority.'"
The federal government defines public corruption as any instance in which a public official uses his position or office for personal, financial or material gain. The FBI's Honolulu district includes Guam, Saipan, American Samoa and Hawai'i.
The Honolulu Police Department, the Kaua'i Police Department and the Honolulu Liquor Commission are among the public agencies that have been probed by the FBI this year, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court. A full list of the 32 investigations through May 12 is unavailable since it is the policy of the bureau to neither confirm nor deny the existence of ongoing investigations.
Five Honolulu police officers, the head of security at Aloha Stadium, a liquor inspector and an FBI secretary have been indicted this year for their alleged roles in several corruption and drug cases.
Mark Askey, a 31-year-old Honolulu man who owns Custom Glass Tinting, said he is concerned those indictments indicate a more rampant corruption problem.
"It's such a small island, and everybody knows everybody, that everywhere you turn there is corruption in a lot of things," he said.
NUMBERS NOT UNUSUAL
Authorities say the number of public corruption cases here is not higher than would be expected for a jurisdiction this size, and some smaller jurisdictions have more cases. From 1995 to 2004, there were 55 public corruption convictions in Hawai'i. During that same time, there were 124 convictions on Guam.
"There are clearly some large jurisdictions on the Mainland and in other parts of the world that have systemic corruption problems. Is ours any worse than anywhere else? No, I don't think so, but it's worse than some places," said Charles Goodwin, special agent in charge of the FBI's Honolulu division. "(Hono-lulu) is a big city; it's a big metropolitan area and you're bound to have problems.
"Public corruption is our No. 1 criminal priority here because it is at the heart of problems in a city and a state. If you have problems with corruption, you'll have problems in other areas and we encourage our agents to proactively look for public corruption and to proactively go out and talk to people, to watch the climate and develop cases."
Goodwin declined to speak about specific investigations, citing bureau policy, but said public corruption cases are difficult to uncover because all parties involved usually are getting something they want, he said.
"The more you uncover, it's kind of a double-edged sword," he said. "If there has been a lot of corruption in the area, people become hesitant to report it because it's become a part of the way of life."
ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT
Ed Kubo, U.S. attorney for the district of Hawai'i, declined to comment about specific cases but said prosecuting cases of public corruption is at the forefront of his efforts.
"Public corruption is a very high priority in terms of crimes the federal government prosecutes in Hawai'i," he said.
Calls to the Liquor Commission and the Kaua'i Police Department seeking comment were not returned.
Honolulu Police Chief Boisse Correa said his department actively seeks out officers who betray the public trust. As a result of the recent federal indictments, police have opened a large-scale internal investigation based on evidence turned over to the department by the FBI.
"There is no place for any type of corruption in any organization, especially the Honolulu Police Department," Correa said. "Nothing deteriorates public trust more than public corruption. Everything we do is designed to provide the community with the best police officers possible.
"Our policies governing officer behavior are amongst the strictest in the nation, addressing officer misconduct before such acts can develop into widespread corruption. We have an obligation to police ourselves as well as the community."
David T. Johnson, a University of Hawai'i sociologist, said that public corruption in Hawai'i may be more rampant than anyone can quantify.
"How much corruption there appears to be is a function of two main things: How much corrupt behavior there really is (much of it may remain hidden), and how hard people and organizations try to expose it and how effective they are at exposing it," Johnson said. "In my view, Hawai'i is sorely lacking in the latter — institutions that expose it. Law enforcement in Hawai'i is not aggressive vis-a-vis the crimes of the powerful.
"I think citizens care about corruption because they care about accountability and fairness, because corruption triggers powerful emotions in observers, and because reports of misconduct are easy for the public to understand, in part because they parallel ethical and moral dilemmas in everyday life."
Becker, of Chaminade University, said a factor contributing to allegations is that public officials in Hawai'i are not compensated as well as they are in Mainland jurisdictions. Couple the pay disparity with Hawai'i's high cost of living and it could explain why some officials sell their office, he said.
"As a tangent, it is expensive to work here and police salaries must be supplemented in some fashion for them to survive. It is easy to rationalize corruption when you believe you're underpaid, overworked and underappreciated," he said.
The FBI's Goodwin said he hopes the public will do its part to help law enforcement prevent public corruption from becoming commonplace in Hawai'i.
"Eventually you send the message, not just from a law enforcement perspective but from the community itself, that we're not going to tolerate this," he said. "If people can't trust their elected or appointed officials that's a real problem."
POLICE ON TWO ISLANDS, OTHER OFFICIALS TARGETED
Recent federal cases of public corruption:
• Honolulu Police Department: On April 6, five police officers were indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with a two-year federal investigation of illegal cockfights and gambling operations in Waialua.
Three officers are charged with trying to protect an illegal gambling operation involving cockfights, craps and card games in an area across the street from Waialua Elementary School.
The criminal charges represent what is believed to be the most widespread allegations of misconduct by the largest number of Honolulu police officers in years.
• Honolulu Liquor Commission: The investigation that produced criminal charges against the officers also resulted in a federal indictment accusing a liquor commission supervisor and the head of security at Aloha Stadium of extorting money from the owner of two nightclubs.
On April 13, indictments were issued against James Rodenhurst, 57, the commission night-shift supervisor inspector, and Herbert Naone, 57, the stadium security official. They were charged with extorting about $500 a week from the owner of Volcanoes Nightclub on Nimitz Highway, and Sin City, also known as Club Pearlridge, in Pearl City from May 2004 to January 2005.
Both men are former Honolulu police officers.
Rodenhurst was hired in 2002 after eight liquor inspectors were charged with bribery and fired.
• Kaua'i Police Department: In January, it was disclosed that the department is being investigated by the FBI. The issues include misbehavior by officers, but the FBI will not confirm or deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.
Reach Peter Boylan at firstname.lastname@example.org.