Discussion

Pilot Whistleblower Hotlines up and Running to Report Suspected Fraud

By Nathan Christophel
July 28, 2022, 5:15 PM HST
* Updated July 28, 4:28 PM
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Scandal. Corruption. Conspiracy.

Those words have made frequent appearances in headlines and news stories during the past couple of years — and even more recently — as wrongdoing at the state and local levels of government has been exposed.

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Making sure such issues don’t happen boils down to accountability. Keeping government accountable includes having policies and procedures in place to allow tips and complaints to be made and follow-up investigations and audits to happen, when warranted, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Two hotlines that are part of a pilot program and a proposed amendment to the Hawai‘i County Charter that will appear on this year’s general election ballot are aimed at doing just that.

The two hotlines — one for whistleblowers and reports of abuse and the other for tips about fraud and waste — were established at the Office of the County Auditor earlier this year. The pilot program runs through June 30, 2023.

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To date, according to county Auditor Tyler Benner, his office has fielded 22 calls. While he can’t say much about the contents of those calls, generally speaking, there’s been a large learning curve. People were calling about issues that had other avenues to satisfy their questions.

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“As the line has gained some understanding,” however, Benner told Big Island Now, “we’ve had calls that are directed more towards the intent of the line.”

There are policies and procedures, document templates and additional infrastructure that the auditor’s office needs to develop as it encounters new and unanticipated issues, so the hotline pilot program is providing an opportunity to develop them. That includes the proposed charter amendment.

Bill 173, introduced by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and since approved by the Hawai‘i County Council, would amend the county charter to add investigations of reports of fraud, waste and abuse within county operations as a function of office. It’s intent is to grant the auditor’s office the ability to complete routine, non-audit activities and services outside the annual audit plan. 

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Voters will get a chance to weigh in on the amendment during the Nov. 8 general election.

Kierkiewicz said during a May 31 meeting of the council’s Finance Committee when the bill was introduced that she was made aware of situations where the charter actually restricts the auditor’s office from investigating inquiries from the hotlines.

“So wanted to make sure we made some strategic updates to the charter to allow the auditor’s office to be able to proceed with non-audit type services and activities,” she said.

“In order to bring a maximum accountability to the process, we need to expand the tools at our disposal to be able to conduct those appropriate activities … “

Hawai‘i County Auditor Tyler Benner

It’s not that current charter language puts up barriers to investigating tips that come through the hotlines, Benner said. Bill 173 would give his office the flexibility to decide how to move forward with them.

Audits involve major commitments of time and resources and they have associated requirements to carefully plan, gather evidence and support all elements of a report. There are overlapping facets with an investigation, but in contrast, an investigation centers more on variations and smaller isolated situations.

“So when a policy is well-developed, behavior that is contradictory to what is expected from that policy, then we recognize that as potentially an isolated circumstance,” Benner said. “Confronting that variance and then changing the behavior might be more appropriate than representing it as a larger problem affecting a larger population.”

By having the two tools — either an audit that complies with government standards, which are set by the U.S. comptroller general, or an investigation — his office can act more quickly to produce shorter and more concise documents in response to tips from the hotlines rather than going through a meticulous planning and risk assessment as audit standards might otherwise require.

“So the point of the proposed charter amendment is that we need to be able to address different issues of scale, and Bill 173 will help us accomplish that,” Benner said, adding the benefits of the measure would be his office having the ability to act quickly, produce concise reports and have more tools at its disposal to respond to tips.

The measure would also allow the auditor’s office to report to the council and public when government is doing well. The office’s job, despite conventional opinion, is to be accurate — whether its findings are positive or negative.

“There’s major time and resource commitments to doing an audit,” Benner said. “So if somebody suspects that something might be amiss and we go in and find it’s actually operating beyond the expectations, then it doesn’t benefit our reporting or our resources to spend much time capturing that data and if we were doing a smaller, more concise report, it would allow us to elaborate in those circumstances.”

The auditor’s office mission is to serve the council and residents of Hawai‘i County by “promoting accountability, fiscal integrity and openness in local government.”

“Our work is intended to assist county government in its management of public resources, delivery of public services and stewardship of public trust,” the mission statement reads.

While he didn’t want to project onto the public what it feels about government corruption and wrongdoing, Benner said there is obviously a lot of issues that have hit the press lately on different levels of state and local government.

“The public is tired of the county spending a long time building its trust up only to have periodic, repeated failures, and they want additional accountability elements added,” the auditor said. “And we need to do everything in our power to support those kinds of initiatives.”

Benner reiterated that accountability is the main objective.

“In order to bring a maximum accountability to the process, we need to expand the tools at our disposal to be able to conduct those appropriate activities, and voting to approve Bill 173 would help expand that toolbox for us.”

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said during the May 31 Finance Committee meeting that oftentimes, “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” Benner agreed.

“Members of our government are also members of our community,” he said. “Most people come to work and are invested in doing a good job and most individuals do their job correctly.”

The auditor’s office merely wants to be an accountability tool for those isolated circumstances where that doesn’t happen, Benner said, and “that shouldn’t diminish the good work that those other folks do.”

To report issues of suspected government fraud or waste, call 808-480-8213. The whistleblower and abuse hotline number is 808-480-8279.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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