Saturday, November 28, 2015         


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Tam's biggest crime was to damage trust in government

By Cynthia Oi


In June 2002, a state judge was disturbed by letters he had received from people in the community who urged him to go easy in setting a prison term for a woman who had pleaded guilty to theft.

The letters argued that former City Councilwoman Rene Mansho had only done what all politicians do when she improperly used taxpayer money for her own purposes.

If that were true, Judge Dan Kochi said, "we place the very survival of our system of government in serious jeopardy."

He could have put her in jail for 10 years, the maximum sentence, but the judge exercised leniency, imposing just a one-year term.

Rod Tam might take some comfort from that when he goes to court for sentencing next month, having admitted to 26 misdemeanor counts of theft and falsifying documents in illegally using his Council contingency fund.

Tam has often drawn jeers for knucklehead suggestions -- such as providing naps and snacks for government workers and kicking people off city buses for body odor -- and for poor judgment, such as using an ethnic slur to refer to immigrants from Mexico.

He is not known for far-reaching initiatives. His all-purpose recommendation for legislation, whether routine or controversial, is to conduct public hearings, even after public hearings have been already held.

But the blundering persona covers a darker quality, one that dismisses laws and principles as pertaining to others, not to himself.

Like Mansho, Tam didn't spend city cash for great personal financial gain. He didn't parlay the more than $22,000 cited in court to bankroll schemes to make more money. In fact, the $22K seems like chump change in the world of scammers and con artists.

Instead, he spent the money on hundreds of meals for himself, family members, friends and personal business associates and pretended the dining was connected to his Council duties.

In several instances, he padded his bills, charging the city more than he paid.

Even after his guilty plea, he continues to characterize the theft as bookkeeping mistakes.

Tam has had a nearly 30-year career in political office. Despite a spotty reputation, he has been elected and re-elected to seats in the state Legislature and to two terms on the Council.

Not to say that he hasn't provided services or helped his constituents and that he hasn't built some community support, but it is just as likely that indiscriminate voters familiar with his name have returned him to office time and again.

His tangle with the city Ethics Commission and with the court, fortunately, doomed his attempt to become mayor.

Few would be surprised if Tam receives a brief prison term. The manini money and misdemeanor-level crimes might not add up to what the court views as major offenses. His role as the butt of political jokes colors him trivial.

But what Tam did was insidiously damaging. He disregarded his civic responsibilities and contributed to the steady corrosion of public trust.

As the judge said, he placed the system of government in serious jeopardy.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at

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