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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Council censure needed in Tam theft case

Last Friday night found disgraced Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tam standing on a dark corner in Chinatown, holding a sign and waving, as if campaigning would somehow provide redemption.

For nearly a week we've been waiting for him to acknowledge his wrongdoing. Accused of stealing money from the taxpayers, Tam has done everything but say he's sorry.

Chinese culture, his "aloha spirit," his sinuses, poor math skills, sloppy record-keeping, bad memory and the difficulty of finding parking around City Hall have all been cited by Tam as excuses for eating out at city expense and filing phony meal receipts for reimbursement.

But the excuse that's really galling is the familiar complaint about the rules not being clear. It reminds us of the "Seinfeld" episode where George Costanza gets fired for having sex with the cleaning lady on the desk in his office.

Costanza was horrified; there's a rule against this?

"Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing is frowned upon ... you know, 'cause I've worked in a lot of offices, and I tell you, people do that all the time."

In Tam's case, someone apparently should have told him not to submit phony receipts, not to take family members out to meals on the city dime and claim them as "constituents" and not to pocket $1,000 in meal overcharges he billed to the city.

Do other city officials also need this instruction?

While no one has spent public money with Tam's enthusiasm, the Ethics Commission did say the council's policy on contingency funds may be too vague.

The commission found that Tam interpreted the city's language on reimbursing expenses for "official duties" as meaning he could expense "all meals had during discussion of any issue that might affect the city." The commission concluded: "This case is a prime example of how a general policy may be used to justify conduct that was unintended."

We are confident that no one else will mangle the meaning of the City Charter and administrative rules with the gusto and contempt for the taxpayers shown by Rod Tam.

On Sunday, we called for Tam's criminal prosecution. We're now wondering if Tam's notorious commingling of his official duties with some of his private business ventures might also merit the attention of federal investigators.

And we're calling on the City Council to go beyond simply taking away his zoning committee chairmanship. The council should publicly censure or admonish Tam to send the clear message that his actions are unacceptable and an embarrassing reflection on the entire council.

Tam has only a few months left in office or we'd be calling for his impeachment. The council should ensure that he spends the rest of his time quietly standing in the corner.

He can campaign for redemption on his own time.