BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Former Honolulu City Council Member Rod Tam admitted in Honolulu District Court this week that he has been living off of his unemployment benefits since he left office in January 2011.
The two term council member, who once served in the Hawaii state legislature and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Honolulu in 2010, left the council office because he came up against term limit restrictions.
Earlier this week, Tam was sentenced to two days in prison and more than 300 hours of community service by Hawaii District Judge Randal Shintani after pleading guilty to 34 misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors related to theft of about $15,000 in taxpayer money and a host of campaign spending violations.
Depending on the circumstances, Tam, like other Hawaii residents looking for work, could potentially qualify for as many as 73 weeks of unemployment, according to William Kunstman, spokesperson for the state Department of Labor.
That includes 26 weeks from the state and 47 more weeks authorized by the federal government through an emergency declaration.
Tam, 58, won’t go to prison immediately. Tam asked the judge to delay his sentence so that he can continue to qualify to collect state unemployment for the maximum number of weeks. He told the judge that if he went to prison, he would have his benefits cancelled. Instead, Tam will spend December 31, 2011 and January 1, 2012, the first two days that he says he is off state unemployment, behind bars.
But Kunstman said that it may not have been necessary to delay Tam’s incarceration for several weeks because that would not likely have impacted his unemployment claim.
For example, if Tam is seeking a management position or other types of Monday-through-Friday jobs, going to prison on a holiday or over the weekend for 48 hours would not have caused him to have his unemployment cancelled.
Lawmakers say Hawaii is one of the most generous states in the nation when it comes to unemployment benefits.
In August 2011, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reports that the EUC benefit payment was approximately $19,969,269 ($19,969,269/4.3 weeks = 4,644,016) or $4.6M/week, and it is 100% Federally funded.
Granting these benefits to politicians – who were either voted out by constituents or termed out because of length of service in office – is just one example of the government’s generosity with this fund, which all employers must pay into.
Hawaii Reporter sought the list of Hawaii politicians receiving unemployment benefits, but this remains confidential under state law.
Tam’s case has shone the light on a practice that not all states allow.
When former Rosemead City Councilman John Nunez collected $11,000 in unemployment benefits after he failed in his bid for re-election in March 2009 for the part time position, his case led state California lawmakers to question the practice.
The Orange County Register reports that State Sens. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, introduced a bill “to forbid elected officials from receiving unemployment benefits after they lose or leave their elected office.”
“This common-sense measure will ensure public servants don’t bilk our unemployment system when they leave office,” Dutton told the OC Register. “California’s unemployment insurance fund is bleeding red ink, having borrowed more than $7 billion so far from the federal government to stay afloat. We must identify and eliminate all forms of abuse and ensure that only those who rightly qualify for benefits receive them.”
Nunez, like Hawaii Council Member Rod Tam, also left office under a cloud. Nunez was the subject of a costly sexual harassment lawsuit that cost the city $330,000.
Romero told the Orange County Register at the time that: “As elected officials, we are public servants who answer a call to give, not to receive,” Romero said in the statement. “I am outraged to hear that an elected official would file for unemployment and I am committed to ensuring that this never happens again.”
Illinois also made the news in March 2011 over a controversy involving a politician seeking unemployment benefits, but lawmakers there typically prohibit the practice.
Democrat Todd Stroger filed for unemployment benefits with the Illinois Department of Employment Security when he lost his election for President of the Cook County Board, Chicago Now reports. He is now a radio talk show host.
Chicago Now research shows: “With respect to eligibility of elected officials for unemployment, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Employment Security said that generally money elected officials earn in their official capacity is not included when calculating unemployment benefits.”
Dick Rowland, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said giving politicians unemployment benefits after they have left office is a way for politicians to “rip off” the very people who are supposed to serve.
“This benefit to Rod Tam is utterly immoral but at the same time probably quite legal. Government contrives to protect itself and its friends,” Rowland said.