Requiring honesty from elected representatives

In the science fiction novel “Haze” (2009) by L.E. Modesitt Jr., the Dubiety people set some interesting limits on their government officials. Elected representatives have no official staff, are discouraged from in-person meetings with constituents (electronic contact is preferred), and polls and surveys are prohibited.

But one of the most provocative changes has to do with political speech. In Dubiety, if a public figure uses accurate facts or figures to misrepresent, it can be a criminal offense, depending on the relevant information withheld or omitted. Lawyers are eager to play watchdog.

I don’t want to penalize someone who makes an honest mistake, such as saying the wrong date or amount, or getting a name wrong, or filing a form late. Harmless mistakes.

But I think that elected representatives and upper-level government officials should be held to a higher standard of truth, and the fines should be substantial.

Here are a couple of examples:

* Questionable expenses – In March 2010, a Honolulu councilmember was reimbursed for $12,000 of expenses that were unrelated to council business, and was fined $2,000. In the private sector, this would be considered fraud or theft, and the employee might be charged with a criminal offense. At the least, how about a fine equal to 100% of the amount of disputed expenses?

* Misleading claims – In August 2010, a candidate for governor of Hawaii claimed that he had left Honolulu in better financial shape than he found it. Regardless of who is at fault, with a large sewer bill and a multi-billion dollar rail project, I don’t know how anyone can make that assertion. How about a $100 fine for every misleading or unsupported statement that goes uncorrected?

* Irresponsible resignations – In August 2010, a Honolulu councilmember accepted another job, but delayed his resignation, forcing us to pay for a special election. During a recession. His extra two months in office could cost at least $170,000, reported KHON2. That’s three times a council member’s annual salary. Why not bill the councilmember for at least 50% of the cost of the special election?

Do you see the haze of dishonesty and greed in politics? How can we clear the air?

The Hawaii State Ombudsman “independently and impartially investigates complaints against state and county agencies and employees.” Maybe they could add a Fact-Check Division, which would investigate statements based on accuracy (is it factual?), context (are facts presented in context?), and omissions (was relevant information withheld?). The department could gain funding from unrepentant government representatives.

What do you think? Should we expect a higher level of honesty and integrity from our elected officials? If fewer candidates run for office because of the higher standards, would that be such a bad thing?

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