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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 10, 2006

Court upholds ex-city official's long sentence

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Hawai'i Supreme Court yesterday upheld the 50-year prison sentence handed to former city housing official Michael Kahapea for bilking Honolulu out of nearly $6 million.

Kahapea, 63, was sentenced in 2000 to five consecutive 10-year terms after he was found guilty of 43 counts of theft, forgery, money-laundering and other crimes in connection with his role in moving businesses from the 'Ewa Villages revitalization project. He was accused of stealing $5.8 million in city funds that were supposed to be used for relocation expenses from 1994 to 1997.

Prosecutors said Kahapea, the former head of the city property management and relocation branch, was the mastermind of the scheme, which included several co-defendants, to divert the funds for personal use.

Kahapea bankrolled lavish gambling trips, spent thousands of dollars at hostess bars, and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in businesses with a "far-fetched dream of making a fortune," said Circuit Judge Reynaldo Graulty when he sentenced Kahapea.

Graulty also characterized Kahapea's actions as the "largest single theft of taxpayers' money by a public official in our state." He then ordered Kahapea to serve the consecutive prison sentences.

Kahapea appealed the convictions and sentences. In October 2004, the Hawai'i Supreme Court affirmed the convictions, and yesterday the court upheld the sentences.

Kahapea had argued that Graulty abused his discretion by imposing the consecutive terms, which Kahapea said constituted cruel and unusual punishment. He also argued that a jury, not a judge, should have determined whether the consecutive terms should have been imposed.

But in its ruling released yesterday, the court rejected Kahapea's arguments.

"Given the destructive, deceitful and wasteful, albeit nonviolent, character of Kahapea's offenses ... five consecutive 10-year terms of imprisonment does not reflect a plain and manifest abuse of discretion on the part of the Circuit Court," the justices wrote.

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.