Recently elected County Councilmember and longtime politician Wayne Nishiki ran as the candidate who didn’t take developer money and had no binding ties to the island’s big business interests. So it came as a surprise to learn that Nishiki owes $100,000 to Dowling Co., the outfit behind such controversial projects as the Makena expansion that Nishiki and his fellow councilmembers will have to rule on in the coming term.
The loan, which Nishiki says he took while out of office to help keep his business afloat, was disclosed in a County Board of Ethics form filed October 16.
Couch and Nishiki ran a hard-fought campaign and frequently traded barbs; many of Nishiki’s harshest criticisms against his opponent centered on the fact that Couch accepted campaign contributions from developers. Nishiki, meanwhile, painted himself as an independent voice. “No developer is going to come into my office,” he told us in an interview shortly before the election. “I’m sorry, that’s not how I operate.”
In light of the loan, Couch called Nishiki’s attacks against him “unconscionable.” And, he pointed out, Nishiki will have to recuse himself from any vote involving Dowling Co. as long as he owes the money. “What good is a councilman who can’t vote?” Couch asked.
Couch also pointed out that Nishiki filed the ethics form late. “It was due at the end of July,” said Couch. “That in itself isn’t a huge deal, just a slap on the wrist.” But, he added, it’s what’s in the form that matters.
Nishiki said he will do “everything in his power” to secure another loan to pay off Dowling Co. before he takes office. He said that was his plan all along if he won the election; he didn’t do it before because if he lost it would have been unnecessary, he said. “I believe I was transparent,” he said, “I filed the form.”
Nishiki did acknowledge that the loan is a “negative cloud that I want to clear.” Asked if he should have revealed the existence of the loan to voters in addition to filing the report, Nishiki said that “might have been a good idea.” But, he maintained, he was never dishonest. Furthermore, he drew a distinction between a business loan—which is paid back with interest and is given separate from a campaign—and campaign contributions.
Ultimately, Nishiki said, “the proof is in the pudding.”
That may be true. If Nishiki pays the loan back before he takes office—eliminating the ethical conflict—and votes in the same anti-big development fashion he has in the past, that proof may be satisfactory to his supporters.
Yet the question remains: what if Nishiki had done more than the bare minimum and openly disclosed the loan to voters at the outset of the campaign? That would have been more in line with his message of total transparency, and might have gone a long way toward neutralizing any appearance of impropriety.
Or, Couch argues, it might have changed the outcome of the election. MTW