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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 14, 2009

There's no such thing as 'manini' in ethics

By David Shapiro

A couple of discussions on my blog recently have left me concerned about our willingness to give public officials a pass on ethical lapses when they're politicians or causes we support.

One instance involved House Speaker Calvin Say, who according to Pacific Business News sponsored the House version of a bill that essentially requires Massachusetts-based HRPT Properties Trust to provide more favorable leases to tenants of a Mäpunapuna building HRPT acquired from the Damon Estate.

Among the tenants benefiting is Warabeya U.S.A. Inc., which uses the property for its musubi-manufacturing subsidiary Tokyo Bento Nichiyo. Say is an officer of Warabeya and is paid $1,000 a month.

He didn't disclose his conflict when he introduced the House bill or voted for a similar Senate version that eventually became law, telling PBN it wasn't a conflict because "I'm just an officer in title. I'm not there for any daily operations."

HRPT has sued in federal court to strike down the law over its narrow application and U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway has taken the case under advisement.

Disturbing to me was the reaction of some blog readers. One responded with a "so what?" Another argued that we're a small town and legislators shouldn't be held to "manini" conflicts of interest.

There's nothing "manini" about a legislator pushing a special-interest bill for a company that pays him $1,000 a month while skirting disclosure. Say's assurances that it's OK because he's not on the floor rolling musubi aren't comforting.

The other case involved a report by CBS News that U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie sponsored a $3.5 million earmark for Pacific Biodiesel, whose founder is honorary co-chair of his campaign for governor, to grow fuel for the Army.

Abercrombie's office and his political supporters defended the pork on the grounds that the project is worthwhile and the $3.5 million is a tiny part of the $623 billion Pentagon budget.

Those arguments are beside the point. Earmarks, which totaled $5 billion in the Pentagon budget, are controversial because they're completely at the discretion of congressmen and senators and don't get the same careful public scrutiny as the rest of the budget.

If lawmakers are going to use this dark side of the budget to funnel billions of unvetted dollars to their campaign backers, it's cause for serious ethical concern.

The more we excuse "manini" conflicts of interest, the more we open the door to major corruption.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog, Volcanic Ash, at www.HonoluluAdvertiser.com/Blogs.