Ethics director questioning memo from city's top lawyer

Published On: Dec 05 2013 04:56:00 PM HST

City Ethics Director Chuck Totto is baffled.

This week, the city's top lawyer Donna Leong issued a memo which essentially says city workers can come to her office for ethics advice instead of the Ethics Commission.

Click here to watch Catherine Cruz's report.

Totto says the move is not only confusing to city workers but could lead to inconsistent behavior.

The mayor defended the decision.

"The city corporation counsel is someone you go to get advice from.  I do.  We do on all the different issues we undertake," said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.  "They review.  It's something that's proper to do."

That memo has ratcheted the tensions between the public watchdog office and some of the mayor's cabinet.  For the last six months, Totto has been trying to get documents from Transportation Services.  He has also had trouble getting documents from Human Resources.

"Where we used to get this information with no difficulty, full cooperation both from us and to us, why are we having these problems?" asked Totto.

Totto says he may be forced to subpoena the documents he needs.  He says dueling legal advice was tried and abandoned under former Mayor Jeremy Harris because it could spell trouble for city workers if they get mixed messages.

Totto pointed to a council member who got conflicting advice about an expensive prize from a golf tournament.

"The corporation counsel said, fine not a problem, but the commission staff said no, it's an unlawful gift.  To the council member's credit, he said he would forgo the gift," said Totto.

The mayor's office said it will work with the commission to try and iron out the concerns but  it has a responsibility to protect personnel files.

Leong released the following statement:

"The Department of the Corporation Counsel has always had an obligation to advise city employees on their questions related to ethics. I understand that providing advice to the employees on ethics matters is not a new practice for my office. My memo was issued in response to the Ethics Commission's request to state my office's policy on providing advice to the employees on ethics matter. The memo also responds to questions relating to the responsibilities between the Ethics Commission and Corporation Counsel."

"I am disappointed that Chuck Totto has chosen to paint my response as some kind of new policy, which it is not, and to be so adversarial in this entire matter.

I explained to the Commission at its November 4 meeting that I want to come before them to explain my memo and my Department's position at its meeting in January. I hope they will give me that courtesy."


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