Ethics findings show a need for better city employee training

The Honolulu Ethics Commission has found probable cause of ethics violations by a city employee involving accepting gifts and a misuse of sick leave.

The Honolulu City Ethics Commission (CEC) has found, in an advisory opinion, probable cause that a city employee violated the Revised Charter of Honolulu (RCH) Sec. 11-104 by misusing sick leave to attend a golf tournament thrown by a business he/she had direct influence over in the approval of building permit applications, and by misusing his/her city position by falsifying statements to the Ethic Commission Investigator, once via email and once during an interview.

The CEC initiated its investigation of this employee—who had reviewed and approved “at least 100 building permit applications that had been routed through his/her department” by the business in question—after a complaint was filed alleging that “approximately 40 city employees accepted prohibited gifts” at the businesses’ golf tournament, held in November.

The report notes that the CEC has determined it will not reveal the employee’s name pursuant to State Office of Information Practices (OIP) opinion letter No. 10-3. Despite this, the Hawaii Independent sent requests for the employee’s name to both the OIP and the CEC under the Uniform Information Practices Act. At press time, the OIP had responded, saying “OIP does not maintain the records of other agencies or make requests for records on behalf of the public. If you would like to review a government record, you must request access to that record directly from the agency that maintains the record, [pursuant to] Hawaii Administrative Rules §§ 2-71-11, -12.” The CEC did not respond by deadline.

The business in question is a certified third-party reviewer that examines building plans for code compliance. Clients pay the business to review and certify their plans instead of routing them through the city’s plans examiners. The business also routes plans through other necessary agencies for approval, including the department this city employee works for.

“City officers and employees are prohibited from soliciting, receiving, or accepting any gift, directly or indirectly, under circumstances in which it can be reasonably inferred that the gift is intended to influence the officer or employee in the performance of such person’s official duties. A gift can be in the form of money, loan, gratuity, favor, service, thing or promise,” according to RCH Sec. 11-102(a) and the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu (ROH) sec. 3-8.7.

This same employee was also found in violation of both RCH Sec. 11-102(a) and ROH sec. 3-8.7 through acceptance of a prohibited gift of green fees, food, drink and a gift card in the amount of $159 from the business.

According to the report, “[The City] Officer’s invitation to and the payment of his/her greens fee for the golf tournament were based on his/her official status as an elected city officer … Taken as a whole, the grand prize was an expensive gift won at a social event sponsored by an organization whose members have interests that may be affected by officer.”

Several other investigated city employees were also found to be in violation of these charter sections, but returned their gifts as well. All of the other employees used vacation time, however, to play in the tournament, while the one employee violated RCH Sec. 11-104 by misusing sick leave and then lying about it.

The commission was most reluctant to settle with the employee over this particular violation. However, after the commission’s notice of violation was issued to the employee, he/she agreed to settle the case by signing a stipulation admitting wrong-doing and by returning the gift to the business.

“In order to prevent future ethics violations, the Commission will continue to work with all Departments to educate and train their employees about prohibited gifts and the city’s ethics laws,” reads the report.

The commission recommends that the employee be suspended 1–3 days to compensate the city for the misused sick day.

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