Honolulu councilman Tam will pay $13,700 to settle ethics probe
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
City Councilman Rod Tam will pay the city $13,700 for improperly using his official allowance to pay for meals not related to council business and giving false accounts of his meals, according to an agreement he reached with the city Ethics Commission.
The commission yesterday issued an advisory opinion stating Tam was being asked to reimburse the city for meals, along with paying a $2,000 civil fine, in exchange for the commission dismissing its claims against him.
The commission said Tam overcharged on some of his meals and got reimbursed for meals he had with personal business associates and family.
The commission also said that during a nine-year period, Tam failed to follow the law by not reporting "significant financial information ... regarding businesses and nonprofits in which he was an officer or director."
Council Chairman Todd Apo, who informed the media about the commission opinion yesterday afternoon, said Tam agreed to step down as chairman of the Zoning Committee, and that he has asked him to drop his other committee assignments for the time being.
"I guess he understands the gravity of this," Apo said.
Reached by phone yesterday, Tam said, "Basically it's all allegations." He said he will issue a statement on the situation today.
Tam, who has announced he is running for lieutenant governor, said, "The complaint ... came out when I first stated that I was going to run for lieutenant governor."
He also said he did not know who lodged the complaint against him with the commission. Names of complainants are kept confidential unless they allow their names to be made public.
Tam has served on the council since 2002 and is finishing up his second four-year term representing Downtown Honolulu, Nu'uanu, Liliha, Kalihi Valley, and portions of Kalihi and Makiki.
Apo said the prosecutor's office has been notified of the Ethics Commission statement and is looking into whether there will be charges filed against Tam.
$22,000 IN MEALS
The 18-page advisory opinion said that from fiscal year 2006 to 2009, Tam was reimbursed for more than $22,000 in meals from his annual contingency fund. The investigation was confined to Tam's meal reimbursements.
Each of the nine council members receives a contingency allowance to be used for their council-related duties. They got $9,920 for 2006, $12,000 for 2007, $18,011 in 2008 and $18,111 in 2009.
The council's internal policy on the contingency account does not state specifically that it cannot be used to pay for meals. However, it says the allowance "shall not be used for any personal, political, campaign or related expenses related to the conduct of other than official duties and activities of a councilmember."
Tam told the Ethics Commission staff that he likes to conduct business over a meal because "having a meal will calm a stressful situation," the opinion said. Tam also said that it is customary in Chinese culture to discuss issues over a meal rather than in an office.
He also cited the lack of parking at city hall and "allergens in the building that cause him sinus problems," the opinion said.
Ethics Commission staff focused on 28 recent meals whose expenses he submitted to the council for reimbursement. "Each receipt submitted by Councilmember Tam differs from the restaurant receipt for the same meal," the opinion said. In 26 of the 28 meals examined, Tam overcharged the city, and in two cases he undercharged, the opinion said.
RECEIPTS DON'T JIBE
In one case, Tam submitted a guest receipt from Kabuki restaurant for a March 12, 2009, meal of $88.18. He wrote in an expense form that he had met with two state employees to discuss "how economy affects HI's public education." But the restaurant's copy of the matching receipt and the credit card receipt showed the meal took place on Valentine's Day 2009, was paid for by his wife, Lynnette, and was for a party of four.
In another case, Tam submitted a guest receipt of $240 from Empress Restaurant on March 31, 2009, under the description "Chinatown crime prevention meeting." The advisory opinion said Tam actually attended the meeting on March 26, and that he did not pay for the meal. Instead, the receipt came from a dinner he hosted for a family party March 29.
Councilman Charles Djou called for Tam to resign and be prosecuted.
Prosecutor's office spokes-man Jim Fulton said the advisory opinion had not come to his office, but that prosecutors would review it if it does.
The advisory opinion said the council's policy on contingency expenses is "broadly worded and may lead to unintended costs being paid from the public."
Apo said he is reviewing the policy to see what changes can be made.