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Politics in Hawaii: Is Something Broken?

From the Bishop Estate scandal of the 1990s to today’s Act 221 and Department of Education governance, politics in Hawai‘i is plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability.


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It was this threat to revoke the estate’s tax-exempt status that prompted the probate judge to finally remove the trustees. But I believed the investigations would continue, to root out the conditions that made such mismanagement possible. I knew that in a democracy, even powerful people are held accountable when they violate the ethical rules of their profession, or the laws of the land, as seemed to have happened in the Bishop Estate scandal.


I look back now and wonder, “How could I have been so naive?”


None of my predictions came true. Efforts were already under way to make everything just “go away.” And, lo and behold, it did.


Federal Judge Samuel King and I provided the details of how this was accomplished in our book, Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement & Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust. One of the nation’s top trust lawyers wrote in a review that the subtitle struck him as “audacious” when he first saw it—but that after reading Broken Trust, he concluded that the subtitle was “understated.” He wrote, “The reader’s first reaction is amazement, then disgust.”


Yet, despite their record for serious breaches of trust detailed in court and government reports—breaches that left trust experts filled with amazement and disgust—the former trustees did not have to pay a penny of their own money in surcharges, damages or reimbursements. They did not even have to admit to having done anything wrong.


Lawyers, legislators and hangers-on, who had feasted for years at the Bishop Estate trough, also escaped any form of meaningful accountability.


On Public Education

After witnessing the lack of accountability in the Bishop Estate controversy, you’d think that I would catch on. Then, I got involved in Gov. Lingle’s efforts to reform the public-education governance structure. On an almost daily basis in 2003 and early 2004, she described the system as too centralized, too rigid, too far-removed from the schools and too focused on the wants of the adults in the system rather than the needs of the children. The education establishment portrayed all this as criticism of public-school students, and as attacks on the teachers and principals.


The political reality was that the education establishment—Hawaii State Teachers Assoc., Hawaii Government Employee Assoc., Department of Education and Board of Education—had the political clout to get any legislation it wanted passed, which it did, and to override the governor’s veto, which it also did. 


The establishment’s boldly named “Reinventing Education Act of 2004” paled in comparison to the governor’s proposals, but there was a glimmer of light: Principals would be put on performance contracts, they would be given control over at least 70 percent of their budgeted funds, and each school’s funding would be determined objectively using a transparent formula.


These decisions have been made behind closed doors, with no written guidelines and no systematic follow-up.


Following their enactment, I gave a speech in which I expressed guarded optimism that these three changes were at least steps in the direction of transparency and accountability.


Today, four years later, no principal is on a performance contract. No principal controls even half of his or her own budget. And the DOE has found ways to neutralize the student funding formula.


I raise the topic of public education now, not to re-debate the issues, but simply to marvel at how a system could be “reinvented,” yet hardly change at all. This is what happens without transparency and accountability.


On Mysterious State Grants

Earlier this year The Honolulu Advertiser published an investigative report by Rob Perez about the way a handful of legislators have been deciding which charities will get grants-in-aid from the state. The amounts involved are substantial—$200 million over the past five years. These decisions have been made behind closed doors, with no written guidelines and no systematic follow up. Headlines referred to the decision-making process as “unique,” “puzzling” and “mysterious.”


Legislators directly connected with this mysterious process insisted that they had always been even-handed and unbiased. The problem, of course, is not that they’re necessarily wrong, but that the public has no way of judging that for themselves.


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