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Tam should serve jail time

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After making the obligatory confession on the record to gain acceptance of his guilty plea and avoid trial, outgoing City Councilman Rod Tam quickly reverted for public consumption to his line that his grabbing taxpayer money for personal use was just a matter of sloppy bookkeeping. It’s up to the judge in sentencing to bring home the reality to Tam that what he did was criminal conduct for which he has shown no real contrition.

People charged with crimes are required to acknowledge a modicum of guilt in order for judges to accept guilty pleas, and that is what Tam did. Part-time state District Judge Randal Shintani is to sentence him Jan. 27 for his conviction on 15 misdemeanor counts and 11 petty misdemeanors.

Those counts were derived from Tam taking thousands of dollars to pay for meals unrelated to his official duties as a city councilman over a two-year period. When the Council censured him in March and ordered him to return $13,700 to the city coffers, Tom actually joined in the vote censuring him. He admitted to no wrongdoing, acknowledging only that he had made several "math errors" and it was time for the Council to "move on with business."

State Attorney General Mark Bennett’s office launched an investigation and found that Tam not only had spent city money on restaurant meals unrelated to city business but had overcharged the city $8 to $267 for the actual prices of those meals.

The city Ethics Commission had found that Tam, on one occasion, submitted to the city a tab of $88.18 from a Japanese eatery for dinner with two state employees to discuss "how economy affects HI’s public education." In fact, Tam later acknowledged, the dinner was on Valentine’s Day 2009 for a dinner of four paid by his wife and reimbursed by the city. It had nothing to do with city business.

For the first time, Tam acknowledged this week — for state court consumption — that he overcharged the city for meals unrelated to his work as a councilman.

Then he went back to his previous explanation, stating, "I should have practiced better bookkeeping methods. I take full responsibility and deeply apologize for my mistakes." In his own defense, he pointed out that he also submitted vouchers "that were below actual billing amounts" — as if all those "mistakes" were just random incidents. Left unexplained is how these "mistakes" just happened to lead, overwhelmingly, to Tam’s financial advantage.

No. Those "mistakes" amounted to deliberately criminal behavior. Tam has yet to come clean about his motives except for the admission required by the judge to accept the guilty pleas, allowing Tam to avoid a grueling trial by court and a full public display of his petty crimes that together amounted to a major offense.

Tam faces a sentence of as much as one year in prison for misdemeanor charges and 30 days in jail for petty misdemeanors. Bennett said he will leave to his successor in the administration of Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie to recommend what is appropriate.

As with two previous Honolulu City Council members found guilty of serious crimes while in office, it will take more than a fine to settle accounts. Like them, Tam should go to jail.

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