City Council votes may be invalidated because of ethical lapses

Published: Sep. 29, 2014 at 9:21 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 29, 2014 at 10:44 PM HST
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Romy Cachola
Romy Cachola

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Key votes on the city rail transit project and other issues might be invalidated because Honolulu City Council members failed to disclose conflicts of interest after being wined and dined by lobbyists.

City Ethics Commission records show that former council members Romy Cachola, Todd Apo, Nestor Garcia and Donovan Dela Cruz as well as current council members Ikaika Anderson and Ann Kobayashi were treated to meals worth more than $200 each several on several occasions by lobbyists between 2006 and 2012. The city lawmakers then voted on rail transit stations, the rail project and rezoning land but none of them apparently declared a conflict as required by law.

So the ethics commission is now looking into a key issue.

"Whether there are any unlawful gifts that required disclosure and the disclosure did not occur, making council members' votes null and void," said Chuck Totto, executive director of the city Ethics Commission.

Totto said his office has already investigated the votes on about 100 council bills and resolutions by Cachola between 2008 and 2012, and now will review the votes of other members. Cachola has agreed to settle an ethics case with the city for $50,000.

"It's not just, 'Oh, I got caught with a conflict of interest.' It could be I got caught with a conflict of interest and so did a couple of other people and now the bill's void," Totto said.

Some measures in favor of the rail transit project may have so many council members' votes invalidated that they will lack the votes needed to pass.

"The only surprising thing about it is that it's been revealed," said Cliff Slater is head of the anti-rail group HonoluluTraffic-dot-com. "It's been very obvious to us throughout the whole process that, somehow or another, the vast majority of the council people had been got to."

Slater said while the revelations prove pro-rail corruption, his group is not immediately ready to go back to court to force the city to invalidate council votes.

"If these are clearly illegal, then they must be invalidated in the legal process. It shouldn't take a lawsuit from us," Slater said.

Totto said he hopes lobbyists learn that their efforts to wine and dine lawmakers could backfire.

"Lobbyists need to understand what the gift laws are and other ethics laws. Otherwise, they can put their own bills in jeopardy," Totto said.

The implications could be huge: with the City Council possibly having to re-do votes that may be invalidated.

One top City Council source said, "It's a mess" and city lawyers will have to decide what happens next.

The City Ethics Commission will take at least several months to review council votes, gifts and lack of disclosures to determine if any votes might be invalid.

The commission went through the same process a couple of years ago, after then-Council Transportation Chair Nestor Garcia voted on rail transit bills but failed to declare a conflict because he was also the $60,000-a-year head of the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce.

That review found no vote outcomes changed even though some of Garcia's votes were declared "invalid." Garcia is now a television news reporter.

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