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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 22, 2005

Fired steward drew wide support

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

State lawmakers who stood up for a cabin steward fired from Norwegian Cruise Line last year for sexual harassment had known the man years before as a political activist and some were aware he had been convicted in the Philippines of a sex crime.

State Sen. Brian Kanno, who met personally with Norwegian on behalf of the man, Leon Rouse, has said he would have done the same for any other worker who felt they had been treated unfairly by their employer.

Kanno, D-19th (Kapolei, Makakilo, Waikele), and state Sen. Rosalyn Baker, D-5th (W. Maui, S. Maui), who recommended Rouse for the job at Norwegian, declined to comment for this story.

But state Sen. Carol Fukunaga, D-11th (Makiki, Pawa'a), and Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu), recalled signing letters on Rouse's behalf while he was in prison in the Philippines.

And state Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully), said he had heard that Rouse was in prison — and may have been wrongfully convicted — but only learned of the details recently.

"We really try to help anyone that comes to us," Chun Oakland explained.

Rouse said he assumed the lawmakers who tried to help him with Norwegian knew about his past and is sorry the media attention has caused them any discomfort. "I guess I'm kind of radioactive right now," said Rouse, who resigned last month from his job as office manager for state Rep. Rida Cabanilla, D-42nd (Waipahu, Honouliuli, 'Ewa), after he was the subject of media reports.

The Hawai'i State Ethics Commission is investigating whether Kanno, the chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, acted properly.

Along with the meeting with Norwegian, Kanno was among the lawmakers who signed a letter asking that Norwegian pay Rouse restitution and travel expenses, which the cruise line refused. Kanno also co-signed a resolution, sponsored by Fukunaga in the Senate and Cabanilla in the House, that would have required Norwegian to disclose its sexual harassment policies and studied whether the cruise line should have to pay the state's hotel room tax. The resolutions never advanced after Norwegian complained they appeared punitive.

The question that has not been answered is how Rouse — a cabin steward and former gay activist in Hawai'i and Wisconsin — was able to get the attention of so many influential politicians.

In a review of letters, government records and court documents from the Philippines obtained by The Advertiser, it appears that Rouse, through his own persistence and knowledge of the process, was able to convince politicians from Hawai'i, Wisconsin and several other states that his situation was compelling enough for them to get involved.

First in the Philippines, where Rouse insists he was framed by police for the sex crime, and then with Norwegian, where he claims he was unjustly fired over anonymous sexual harassment allegations, politicians agreed to try and help him. But in both instances the high-level outreach did nothing to change Rouse's circumstances and, in the end, probably caused him more harm than good.

People who know him were not surprised he turned to politicians when he was in trouble or that so many were willing to help. He can be smart, talkative and funny, but something of a gadfly who can easily cross the line between persistent and irritating. "He's very lovable. He's very sweet and endearing," said Mark Behar, a physician's assistant in Milwaukee. "He's kind of like a little brother who you like to slap upside the head once in a while, but everything he says is correct and true and on target."

Rouse and his family and friends began a letter-writing campaign to politicians soon after he was arrested and later convicted in the Philippines of a sex crime. Police said Rouse, who was married at the time but visiting a boyfriend in Laoag City, had been promising young men money for sex and was found naked in his hotel room with a teenage boy. The boy told police he agreed to have sex with Rouse for 200 pesos — about $3.66 in American dollars — but he later retracted his story to defense attorneys and never appeared at Rouse's trial.

Rouse claims he was set up by a man he thought was a friend who brought the boy and an undercover police officer to his hotel. Rouse said he had just taken a shower and was in a towel when the two older men left to get soft drinks and the boy asked to use the bathroom. Right after the men left the room, police barged through the door and the boy soon emerged from the bathroom, naked.

Rouse believes he was targeted for money but said he refused to pay either the police or prosecutors.

The American Embassy in Manila approached his trial judge, noting that Rouse was not allowed to face the boy in court, but Rouse was convicted of child abuse and was in custody from the time of his arrest in 1995 to his release for medical reasons in 2003.

Over the years, lawmakers from several states wrote Philippine diplomats and the State Department on Rouse's behalf. Although lawmakers often write letters for constituents without taking an advocacy position or even getting personally involved, the volume of the letters for Rouse was impressive given the sensitive nature of his crime.

Former Big Island state Sen. Andrew Levin wrote to the American ambassador in Manila to look into whether Rouse was denied due process. Levin also asked then-Gov. Ben Cayetano's office for advice about whether the state Legislature should pass a resolution requesting that Congress investigate Rouse's plight.

"I thought it was appropriate to bring it to the attention of the ambassador and leave it to the ambassador whether it was appropriate to look into further," said Levin, now the executive director to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim. "I specifically remember Mr. Rouse because it was so unusual."

U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, and U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, informed a friend of Rouse's on Maui that they had written to the Philippine ambassador to the United States. Both the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawai'i, and U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, wrote to the State Department.

In Rouse's home state of Wisconsin, U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., along with several U.S. House members, wrote letters for Rouse. U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., one of the most conservative members of the Senate, wrote to the State Department, as did U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., among the most liberal members of the House of Representatives.

Rouse, who went on a hunger strike in prison to call attention to his case, is bitter that the United States did not put more diplomatic pressure on the Philippine government. He lost all of his appeals in the Philippines but still has hope the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will hear his claims.

Rouse knows the conviction leaves a stain on his life that may never fade, making people more likely to believe he did something wrong at Norwegian, too, and that state lawmakers were politically foolish to help him. He also knows that people will legitimately wonder whether it is his own questionable behavior that keeps getting him in trouble. "I keep trusting," Rouse said. "I keep thinking that justice will prevail."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.