honoluluadvertiser.com

Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 30, 2008

Scandals arise in Big Isle election

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Two leading candidates for mayor of Hawai'i County are downplaying separate incidents that could prove damaging to their campaigns one involving a fundraiser for a convicted murderer and the other sexual harassment allegations.

Hilo Councilman Stacy Higa is denouncing allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward a former legislative aide. Higa called the claims "wacko and way out there."

An administrative judge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month awarded undisclosed damages to Melissa Chang, who claimed she was subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of the alleged harassment. The county is appealing the ruling.

Meanwhile, attorney Billy Kenoi, former executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said he is comfortable with his decision to attend an Oct. 30, 2004, fundraiser for convicted murderer Ethan "Malu" Motta.

Motta is due to be sentenced in July on murder and attempted murder charges for a 2004 shooting at the Pali Golf Course that left two men dead and another critically injured. Authorities said the case involved a dispute between factions that provided protection services to illegal gambling operations.

Kenoi said he and Motta were students together in a Hawaiian leadership program at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo and that Motta had a promising future ahead of him before choosing a different path.

Kenoi said he was "as shocked as anyone else" in hearing the news that his former classmate was involved in the golf course murders.

"You would have never thought. He was student body president. He was going to be a lawyer," Kenoi said. "It was shocking and disappointing. Anytime you lose someone who could have been a positive impact it's a tragedy."

He said organizers of the fund-raiser, held at Nani Mau Gardens before Motta pleaded guilty, initially listed Kenoi as host on the invitations without his permission. Kenoi said he demanded that his name be removed, and new invitations were printed without his name.

Kenoi attended the fundraiser and took the stage to offer brief remarks.

"I talked to people (beforehand) and asked what they thought about it, whether they thought it would be inappropriate and they said, 'Billy, that's your friend. You've known him for years, and you support your friends.' "

Kenoi said he had brief contact with Motta while the suspect was on the Big Island after posting a $1 million bond, but Kenoi did not discuss the case with him, he said.

"I know his parents. We live in a small town and when allegations surface, you don't suddenly act like you don't know the person," he said. "This is the Big Island. Everybody knows everybody."

He said it would be "absurd" and "irresponsible" to make anything more of his association with Motta.

Kenoi resigned from the mayor's office in December to pursue his political campaign. He is seen as the front-runner in the mayoral race, and has been endorsed by the United Public Workers union.

EEOC COMPLAINT FILED

Other notables among the 11 candidates who have filed for the mayoral race so far include former mayor and state Sen. Lorraine Inouye and Councilman Angel Pilago of North Kona.

The allegations against Higa involve an EEOC complaint filed last July against Hawai'i County and the County Council alleging the married councilman asked Chang for dates on several occasions, invited her to take trips with him and subjected her to unwanted physical contact starting in April 2005, when Higa was council chairman.

The document also said that Chang complained about Higa to County Clerk Constance Kiriu and that then-councilman James Arakaki threatened Chang with retaliation if she pursued formal action.

According to the EEOC complaint, Chang filed a successful workers' compensation claim in response to the emotional and mental distress she says she suffered as a result of the "intolerable working environment." She took sick leave and underwent psychiatric counseling, quitting her county job in April 2006.

At the request of Chang's attorney, Schmidt imposed the Federal Privacy Act to prohibit the parties from publicly discussing the details of the case.

COUNTY NAMED IN SUIT

County Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida said he is prevented from discussing the dollar amount of the judgment or Higa's involvement. He indicated the county is open to settlement negotiations.

"It will always be the goal of our office to treat all parties fairly, while doing everything in our legal power to ensure protection of the taxpayers' money," he said. "We are hopeful that we can arrive at some settlement of this case that is fair to all involved, and that at some point the public may be provided the information that they deserve with respect to what happened in this case."

Any settlement would have to be approved by the council.

Chang's attorney, Stanford Masui, did not respond to requests for comment.

Because the case involves an EEOC complaint, Chang's employers and not Higa personally were named as parties. Higa testified as a witness at the hearing on Chang's complaint, but was not allowed to have an attorney offer evidence to counter the claims or question his accuser.

He called the process "un-American" and said he was "being railroaded" by political foes.

"I think people, most people, are akamai enough to know something is not right here. ... Let me have my day in court and if I'm found guilty, I will resign in a heartbeat, but that process never happened," he said.

He characterized his contact with his former aide as "a very professional working relationship."

Higa said that he has been aware of the allegations for about a year. "If I thought this thing had any validity, do you think I would actually run for mayor? I'm not going to let bogus and false things overcome me," he said.

ISSUES TAKE PRIORITY

Big Isle political observer and UH-Hilo political science professor Rick Castberg said some in the public may be confused about the case because Higa was not specifically named as a defendant. "It's further complicated because the record is sealed and we can't see what the judge said," he said.

Castberg said most voters are more concerned with a candidate's policy positions and how he votes on major issues facing the community.

"I don't think that's going to be a big issue," he said of the harassment claims.

Big Island journalist and blogger Hunter Bishop said he doubts supporters of either Kenoi or Higa will be put off by the candidates' actions. In Higa's case, there's a lot of buzz over the allegations and the potential financial cost to the county, Bishop said, but there is also uncertainty about Higa's role since the case has not been resolved yet.

NOT TOO DAMAGING

"If either one of them is going to be hurt it might be Higa a little bit. The sexual harassment case is ongoing but since the county recently appealed, it gives him good cover probably through the election," he said.

There is less talk about Kenoi's attendance at the Motta fund-raiser, Bishop said, and likely more sympathy for the candidate's response that "everybody knows everybody."

"It just doesn't seem to be serious. ... I don't think it's going to stick," he said. "I think it's something people will look past."

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.