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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 20, 2006

Senator to get ethics hearing

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

The Hawai'i State Ethics Commission has alleged that state Sen. Brian Kanno broke state ethics law by attempting to coerce Norwegian Cruise Line to rehire or award back pay and other expenses to a cabin steward whom the cruise line fired in 2004 for sexual harassment.

In a charge made public yesterday, the commission claims Kanno, the chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, violated the law's fair treatment section, which prohibits lawmakers from using their offices to give unwarranted privileges. The commission has scheduled a June hearing on the charge, the first contested-case hearing in 21 years and only the fourth since the commission was created in 1968.

Kanno, D-19th (Kapolei, Makakilo, Waikele), could not be reached for comment.

His attorney, Rebecca Covert, in a response filed with the commission, argues that the commission has violated the separation-of-powers doctrine of the state constitution by taking authority away from the Legislature. Covert also claims that the charge violates a constitutional provision that protects lawmakers from having to answer for actions that are within their legislative functions.

If the commission finds that Kanno violated the law, it would send a complaint to the president of the state Senate, who is allowed to do nothing or recommend that Kanno be censured, suspended or expelled.

Kanno said last April that he was acting within his capacity as Labor Committee chairman when he met with Norwegian officials about rehiring Leon Rouse, who had been fired in California for sexual harassment and had to pay his way back to Hawai'i. Kanno later joined seven lawmakers in a letter to Norwegian asking for back pay, travel costs and other expenses for Rouse.

Norwegian denied the requests, and then complained to Senate leaders after Kanno and other lawmakers proposed resolutions that would have required Norwegian to explain its sexual harassment policies and urged the state to study whether the cruise line should have to pay hotel room taxes.

Kanno said he would have done the same for any other worker in a similar situation and refused to discuss his relationship with Rouse. Media reports about Kanno's dealings with Norwegian led to the revelation that Rouse had been convicted and served prison time in the Philippines for a sex crime and prompted Rouse to resign as office manager to state Rep. Rida Cabanilla, D-42nd (Waipahu, Honouliuli, 'Ewa).

The Advertiser reported last May that Kanno and other lawmakers had known Rouse before as a political activist and that some were aware and had signed letters on his behalf while he was in prison in the Philippines. A committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights ruled last July that Rouse had been arbitrarily arrested, denied a fair trial, and suffered cruel and inhuman treatment by being denied medical care in prison.

The Ethics Commission's charge claims that Rouse knew Kanno and had helped him with his first campaign for state Senate in 1992. Rouse, who has since taken a job as a legislative aide to state Sen. Rosalyn Baker, D-5th (W. Maui, S. Maui), declined to comment last night.

The charge provides a more detailed description of Kanno's alleged attempts to help Rouse after he was fired by Norwegian in June 2004. But it does not mention the resolutions regarding Norwegian, most likely because they were considered part of Kanno's legislative functions.

Kanno allegedly met with Neil Dietz, the port agent for the Seafarers International Union, about Rouse but was told that Norwegian was within its rights to fire Rouse because he was still in his 90-day probationary period. Kanno also allegedly talked with Amy Hirano, a Norwegian lobbyist, about Rouse.

Kanno, according to the charge, described his role as a mediator when he and Rouse met in his Senate office with Norwegian's executive vice president Robert Kritzman and its human resources director in July 2004. After Kritzman defended Norwegian's firing of Rouse, Kanno and the other lawmakers sent Norwegian an August 2004 letter asking the cruise line to give Rouse back pay and expenses.

State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), who asked the commission to investigate Kanno, said yesterday: "This is just another sad example of the exploitation of power by the party in control at the state Legislature."

Contested-case hearings by the commission are rare because ethics cases are typically settled or, if more serious, lead to criminal investigations. There were two commission hearings that led to decisions in 1985 and one in 1968.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.