Honolulu councilman Tam denies faking meal expense claims
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
City Councilman Rod Tam yesterday insisted he did not abuse his contingency account, despite agreeing to pay $13,700 in reimbursements and fines for meals the city Ethics Commission found questionable.
The commission issued an advisory opinion Wednesday stating Tam violated the city's standard of conduct by overcharging for some meals while conducting city business, falsified justifications for some meals, and got reimbursed for meals with personal business associates or family members.
"I admit that there were math errors," said Tam, while stressing he was not acknowledging any wrongdoing.
He said he's learned a valuable lesson in bookkeeping: "Never take the stubs from receipts, get the cash register receipts. That way, you don't make mistakes in terms of putting the wrong numbers in, and that's what I did."
The ethics panel said Tam was reimbursed $22,000 between 2006 and 2009 for hundreds of meals for himself and others, with $10,000 of the expenses judged improper.
The advisory opinion lists examples in which Tam was reimbursed for meals with family members and former business associates. Tam, who represents Downtown Honolulu, Nu'uanu, Liliha, Kalihi and portions of Makiki, said that his meal guests live in his district and that he was treating them as he would other constituents.
"They have individual problems; I have to treat them like constituents, and that's the fair thing to do," he said.
The advisory opinion suggests the council policy on the annual contingency allowance given to council members is too broad, and suggested the council think about changing it. The allowance for the current fiscal year is $16,000 per council member.
Tam agrees the term "discretionary funds" needs to be reviewed.
"I welcome it, quite frankly," he said. "No one wants to go through what I had to go through in terms of going through all records and so forth."
He said he will continue to meet over meals with constituents because he finds it more comfortable and because it's a custom in Asia and Hawai'i.
"I've always done business like this, in terms of hospitality; that's Aloha Spirit," Tam said.
GAVE UP COMMITTEES
On Thursday, he voluntarily stepped down as chairman of the council Zoning Committee. Council Chairman Todd Apo also asked Tam to step down from his other committee assignments and Tam obliged.
Tam also agreed to have all his future contingency expenses approved and dispersed by Apo's office until further notice.
The advisory opinion said the $13,700 includes $2,000 in fines.
It's not publicly known who alerted the commission to the possible violations by Tam, since sources of complaints may remain confidential.
A candidate for mayor since December, and before that a candidate for lieutenant governor, Tam said his supporters believe the complaint may have been politically motivated.
Tam said he intends to stay in office, and he will continue his run for mayor because his supporters have encouraged him to do so.
Chuck Totto, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said he will ask the state Department of the Attorney General to review the advisory opinion to determine if any laws were broken.
City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, who also plans to run for mayor, said it would be inappropriate for his office to handle the matter "due to the appearance of impropriety and the potential conflict of interest."
Tam said he was disappointed Totto released the advisory opinion to reporters Thursday afternoon only hours after he received the document himself.
But Totto provided The Advertiser with documentation showing he e-mailed Tam and his attorney, Jack Schweigert, on Wednesday afternoon, the same day the commission voted to approve the advisory opinion.
Totto also took issue with a news release issued by Tam yesterday stating that council members had never received guidance from the commission on allowable spending of discretionary funds.
He said that while it's true he does not typically go through every scenario during ethics training sessions with council members and other city employees, the law is clear: "You may not use city resources for non-city purposes."