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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Honolulu councilman Tam kept spending amid probe


By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Honolulu City Council member Rod Tam, left, will face a censure vote tomorrow. "It's the volume and consistent abuse of taxpayer resources that's at issue here," says fellow council member Charles Djou, who introduced the resolution for censure against Tam.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | Nov. 18, 2009

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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City Councilman Rod Tam, who will face a censure vote tomorrow, continued to use his city allowance to pay for meals with constituents and retirement party gifts even when he knew he was being investigated for possible abuses by the city Ethics Commission.

Tam last week agreed to pay the city $13,700 in exchange for the dismissal of claims brought against him by the commission, without admitting any wrongdoing. The commission charged Tam received more than $10,000 in compensation for meals that "appeared not directly related to a specific council issue or councilmember duty."

Those violations took place during a four-year period ending June 30. Tam knew he was under investigation by May. From July to February, Tam continued to spend city money on breakfast meetings, dinner meetings and other meetings. He was reimbursed for $1,333.79 for 66 receipts reported for those meetings, according to Advertiser research.

A resolution calling for Tam to be censured by the council for his infractions will be heard at tomorrow's council meeting.

Councilman Charles Djou, who introduced the resolution, said he's appalled that Tam still expenses a large number of meals.

"I don't think anybody would fault Rod Tam if this is a once-in-a-while occasional thing. It's the volume and consistent abuse of taxpayer resources that's at issue here," Djou said.

Tam, a two-term councilman who is running for mayor, previously acknowledged there may have been "math errors" that led to some misreporting. But he admitted to no wrongdoing.

City Council members spend money from their $16,000 per year contingency accounts on a multitude of expenses tied to their duties from cellular phone charges to trips out of state. And some of Tam's colleagues have used their contingency accounts to pay for an occasional meal with staff members, or for per diem meals they have while on trips.

But the Ethics Commission report, released last week, concluded: "None of the (other) councilmembers submitted meal reimbursement requests for the number, total cost or reasons submitted by Councilmember Tam."

Paying for meals in itself is not considered an offense. But the commission said Tam could not properly explain how many of the meal descriptions were directly related to specific council issues or his council member duties on more than $10,000 of meal charges.

Several of those same kinds of questionable meals appear in Tam's contingency account filings for the last eight months, including meals with foreign groups or local people tied to sister-city relations with municipalities in China.

GIFTS, MEALS, LEI

In the last eight months, Tam received reimbursements for 18 lunch or dinner meetings with people to discuss sister city relations or other initiatives involving several Chinese cities. That's about one-third of the meals Tam expensed.

Additionally, Tam got repayment for eight receipts for what were described as macadamia nuts or other gifts for various foreign dignitaries, as well as wrapping paper for the gifts, totaling $391.10.

Tam also got paid back $613.25 in taxpayer money for bentos, sandwiches, chips and oyster sauce chicken on four occasions for city employees who worked on Honolulu City Lights holiday displays at Honolulu Hale.

He has also spent hundreds of dollars on lei for officers of ethnic organizations, as well as cakes, cookies or other food items for community events such as an athletic awards banquet.

Tam, when asked by The Advertiser to comment for this story, asked that written questions be submitted. Tam has not responded to those questions despite having the weekend and yesterday to do so.

Council rules for what's formally called the Annual Contingency Account states that the fund is to be used "to cover discretionary expenses in carrying out his/her duties as an elected official."

Examples listed include cellular phones, wireless network cards and a vehicle allowance. It also lists lei for constituents receiving honorary certificates, conferences or seminars including travel, publications and research materials, furniture and office supplies.

And while there is a mention of "light refreshments," it comes only under the category of "community meeting expenses."

TRAVEL ALLOWANCE

All nine council members are taking a monthly vehicle allowance of $250, which, for most of them, totals $2,000 for the fiscal year, so far. All also accept reimbursement for cellular phones used by themselves and/or a staff member, and all but Tam got compensated for wireless network card connections.

Council members' travel expenses are typically paid out of their contingency accounts, except those reimbursed by travel to Hawaii Association of Counties or National Association of County Organizations, which are under a separate account.

Those using their expenditure accounts to pay for travel in the last eight months include City Council Chairman Todd Apo, Donovan Dela Cruz, Ikaika Anderson, Romy Cachola and Nestor Garcia.

Council members also used the contingency account in a variety of ways to reach their respective communities. Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi purchased bottled water and snacks for community meetings and community cleanup days. Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz purchased advertisements in a weekly newspaper to advertise Aloha Earth Days and a community update, while Apo used a monthly regional publication to speak to the community.

Contingency accounts for individual council members did not exist until fiscal year 2004. Before that, everything from office supplies to paper copies to travel were subject to the whim of the council chairman, said Dela Cruz.

The separate accounts were created when he was council chairman because "we wanted to make sure each member was treated equally, and it didn't matter whether you were in the chair's good graces," he said.

While open for public viewing at the city clerk's office since they were established, the council decided to publish contingency spending accounts online beginning in fiscal year 2006, which coincides with the first year of the Ethics Commission's study of Tam.

On Friday, Tam introduced a resolution calling for the elimination of the contingency account. He noted that the Ethics Commission advisory opinion itself suggests that council members have broad discretion over how the contingency money is spent.

According to the advisory opinion, the policy for reimbursements from the contingency account "is broadly worded and may lead to unintended costs being paid from public funds."

RULE MODIFICATION

The commission report calls for the council to modify its rules on the policy, and commission executive director Chuck Totto has agreed to lend advice.

Apo, the council chairman, said he wants to address the commission's concerns.

But he's also reluctant to see the contingency fund eliminated, or made too restrictive.

The contingency accounts provide the funding necessary for council members to do their jobs, Apo said. For instance, he said, the trips he's taken have given him better perspective on what could work in Honolulu.

"It's up to each council member to decide how they're going to use (the contingency fund) and they need to justify it to the constituents and the Ethics Commission should these things come up," Apo said.

"We're all elected officials, we're all adults, and you shouldn't need a mother or father sitting over every expenditure," he said.

In the Tam case, the rules did their job, Apo said, noting that Tam is now paying a fine for meals he had with family and business associates, and meals for which he received too much reimbursement.

Apo said he thinks Tam's charges for meals and other items tied to international relations and economic development are valid expenses of a council member.

"Any council member, whether they're in charge of something or not, has the discretion to take a serious interest in any topic whether it's economic development, or transit, or housing, or crime," he said.

Djou, who introduced the resolution calling for Tam to be censured, said council members get too much in contingency dollars. "I think our contingency budget is too big and should be cut, in order to cut down on the amount of abuses," he said.

Councilman Gary Okino, at least in recent years, has been among those who has drawn the least out of his contingency account and he said there's a reason for that.

"I'm very careful on how I spend it," Okino said. "It's supposed to help me to do what I'm supposed to be doing on the council. But if I have any doubt it's not totally for the council's work, I spend my own money."

Okino added: "I just don't want to create this cloud of whether I'm using it properly or not."

Okino said he agrees with the Ethics Commission that rules pertaining to the contingency fund should be tightened.

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