Rod Tam Will Spend New Year’s in Jail

UPDATED Former Honolulu councilmember sentenced to two days in jail for stealing city funds and violating campaign finance laws.
By Sara Lin /

UPDATED 11/1/11 6:30 p.m.

Disgraced Honolulu City Councilmember Rod Tam will be ringing in the new year from a jail cell.

A Honolulu judge on Tuesday sentenced Tam to spend two days in jail — Dec. 30-Jan. 1 — for stealing city funds and violating campaign spending laws. He’ll also have to perform 338 hours of community service. And if Tam stays out of further trouble for one year, his record could be wiped clean.

Prosecutors had originally sought six months in jail and a year of probation.

Tam’s defense lawyer had argued that the former councilman should only be sentenced to community service on account that he is the primary caregiver for his aging parents, including a mother with Alzheimers. Tam is supporting his parents with his unemployment insurance, his lawyer said.

Speaking to the court, Tam apologized, saying he had embarrassed himself in front of his family.

“I made a mistake and I have learned from it,” he told Honolulu District Judge Randal Shintani.

Tam, who is 58, pleaded guilty to 26 counts of theft and falsifying documents last November, but his sentencing had been repeatedly delayed.

The Honolulu Ethics Commission found in 2010 that Tam received $22,000 from the council’s contingency allowance over a three-year period, from 2007 to 2009, but paid less than he charged the city for many of those meals, and got reimbursed for some personal meals.

The most infamous example was the $88 tab Tam listed as a business meeting which turned out to be a Valentine’s Day dinner with his wife.

Tam was ordered by the commission to pay $13,700 in monthly interest-free installments of $380.56. The attorney general then pursued a criminal investigation into Tam’s use of city funds, leading to his guilty pleas.

Tam also pleaded no contest in June to eight campaign spending violations from 2008 and 2009.

Tam’s supporters — about 20 of them — filled the courtroom. Four of them spoke to the court, praising his character. His sister, Noreen Clement, said their ailing parents depended on him.

“I plead that Rod can be with us to be there for my mom,” she said.

Deputy Attorney General Lori H. Wada was not impressed, saying that the speakers had already filed letters of support and were just rehashing what they had written.

“It’s the state’s opinion that they’re playing to the cameras here,” Wada said, pointing to the crowd of photographers and television cameras at the front of the court.

Nelson Goo, Tam’s attorney, said that he’d worked on worse corruption cases.

What Tam did is “not that bad,” he said.

Goo initially asked for Tam’s jail term to begin on Jan. 1.

The prosecution protested, saying Tam already got a “big break” with his two-day jail sentence.

“He’s got his wish on everything else,” Wada said. “I can’t see him getting his wish on anything more. Good grief.”

So they settled on Dec. 30-Jan. 1.

Tam declined to comment before or after the hearing. But Goo told reporters, “He’s happy he’s getting … a chance to start up again with a clean slate.”

After the hearing, Wada called the sentence “a shock and a travesty.” She said a six-month jail sentence was reasonable punishment for Tam’s actions.

“Is it any different from what Bernie Madoff did?” she said.

Tam will report to court in April and October of next year to review his compliance with the court’s ruling. If he maintains a clean record, he will be able to ask the attorney general to expunge his record, Goo said.

After that, Goo said, “He can actually say, under penalty of perjury, he has not even been arrested before.”

Tam isn’t the first Hawaii politician to come before the law. Here’s a rundown of other names that hit the news in recent years:

  • Rene Mansho, a longtime Honolulu City Council member, in 2002 was sentenced to a year in jail and five years probation for misusing campaign funds and having staff do campaign work on city time.

  • Former state Sen. Milton Holt in 1999 was sentenced to one year in federal. He pleaded guilty to a federal mail fraud charge stemming from personal use of campaign funds. While awaiting trial, Holt’s bail was revoked after he tested positive for illegal drugs.

  • Former Honolulu City Council member Andy Mirikitani in 2001 was sentenced to four years and three months in prison for a kickback and extortion scheme.

  • Five-term House Speaker Daniel Kihano was convicted of money laundering and obstruction of justice in 1998. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

  • State Rep. Nathan Suzuki was indicted in 2005 by a federal grand jury for failing to disclose his interest in foreign bank accounts and filing false income tax returns. He received a three-year sentence.

  • Marshall Ige, a former state senator and state Democratic Party leader, pleaded guilty in 2002 and is serving time for theft and tax evasion. He received a six-month sentence.

  • Jon Yoshimura, Honolulu City Council member and former Council chair, in 1999 had his law license suspended and was fined for leaving the scene of an accident.

  • Clifford Uwaine, a former state senator, was convicted in 1982 of conspiring to illegally register voters to help a colleague. He served three months in jail.

—Chad Blair contributed to this story.

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