TAX MAN: The Perils of Being a Watch Doggie

The story you are about to read is true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent. This is the city: Honolulu, Hawai‘i. I live here. I’m a doggie.

This is the Case of the Persecuted Watchdog.

A few months ago, the boss wrote an article called, “State auditor facing a whack job?” The article spoke of an apparent feud between the speaker of the House and the state auditor, and of a report that a committee organized by the speaker put out that tried to cast doubt on the auditor’s competence.

We also spoke of a House special investigative committee that was formed to look into some unflattering things the auditor found at the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and Agribusiness Development Corporation.

According to House Resolution 164 that established the committee, the purpose and duties of the investigating committee were to follow up on the audits, to examine the recommendations made, and for “purposes of improving the operations and management of these state agencies, their funds, and any other matters.”

But, as Honolulu Civil Beat reported on Thursday, the auditor seems to be in the crosshairs of the investigation as well. The committee voted to subpoena Edwin Young, the former auditor of the City &County of Honolulu, ostensibly to talk to the committee about federal Yellow Book standards on auditing.

This riled state Rep. Dale Kobayashi, who observed that Young chaired the speaker’s committee “to go after the auditor.” The committee also voted to subpoena one Randal Lee, who wasn’t involved with DLNR and ADC at all but who was a consultant to the state auditor for an audit of the Honolulu rail project. Kobayashi wondered aloud what Lee had to do with the audit findings regarding DLNR and ADC, and suggested that the committee obtain an opinion from the Hawai‘i attorney general as to whether the committee was acting within its proper scope. State Rep. Della Au Bellatti, the committee chair, pointed to language in the authorizing resolution (quoted above) arguably allowing it to look into “any other matters.”

We share Kobayashi’s concern that the House investigation is going off-track.

The law requires that the resolution establishing an investigating committee state the committee’s purposes, powers, duties and duration, as well as the subject matter and scope of its authority. It’s tough to not conclude that those three words, “any other matters,” give the committee unlimited scope and authority to do whatever the heck it wants.

Let’s face it. Watchdogs are there to find things that certain people don’t want to be found. When those things are found, those people are unhappy and might want revenge on the watchdog.

Watchdogs are very useful to society. That’s why I am one. But no watchdog expects to be everyone’s friend. Each one has enemies, some more powerful than others. When the tax foundation sued the state over the excessive “rail skim,” for example, certain politicians vowed that the foundation would never get one cent from the state Legislature in state aid (we wouldn’t take it anyway).

To survive, watchdogs have to watch out for each other. If one gets beaten up, none of us are safe. That is why we are very concerned about the sudden turn in the House investigation, and we think any citizen who values honesty and transparency in our government should be concerned too.

This is a true story. The end of the story has not yet been written. We too will be following the investigation, or trying to, and will continue to bark like crazy if it keeps going off-track. Ours is a tough job, but someone has to do it. The name’s Watch Doggie.

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Tom Yamachika is president of the Tax Foundation of Hawai‘i.

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