Ethics complaint about Kenoi stalls again

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The Hawaii County Board of Ethics remained no closer Tuesday to hearing an ethics complaint regarding Mayor Billy Kenoi’s misuse of a county purchasing card a year after it deferred the issue.

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The Hawaii County Board of Ethics remained no closer Tuesday to hearing an ethics complaint regarding Mayor Billy Kenoi’s misuse of a county purchasing card a year after it deferred the issue.

The board chose to reconsider the matter at the request of Kapaau resident Lanric Hyland, who filed the complaint in April 2015 following local newspaper reports of Kenoi using the pCard to cover an $892 tab at a Honolulu hostess bar and other personal expenses.

But the members’ 2-2 vote on whether to proceed with the complaint left it officially in deferral. Chairwoman Ku Kahakalau was absent because of an illness.

Vice Chairman Ken Goodenow said the board will vote again at its next meeting in June.

The board previously voted in May 2015 to defer the issue pending the “disposition” of the state attorney general’s investigation into Kenoi’s pCard use.

That investigation resulted in a Hilo grand jury charging Kenoi in March with two counts of second-degree theft, two counts of third-degree theft, three counts of tampering with a government record, and false swearing.

With the mayor still awaiting trial, some board members felt that the investigation had not been completed and it remained premature for them to act.

“I think it may be best not to interfere,” Goodenow said, while noting concerns about pretrial publicity. He also acknowledged the board has a limited time to hear the complaint before Kenoi leaves office in December.

Todd Eddins, Kenoi’s attorney, told the board he agreed the issue should be first handled by the court.

But the trial will now likely occur in October, he said, rather than its originally scheduled start date of July 18.

Eddins, who noted it’s normal for complex cases to be rescheduled, said Kenoi wants it to go to trial while he is still in office.

“We are 100 percent optimistic and confident we will prevail,” he said.

Hyland told the board during public testimony that it had no reason to delay.

He said he sees the personal pCard charges as being clear violations of the county’s ethics code and that they should be treated separately from the criminal charges. His complaint alleges Kenoi used the pCard as a “special privilege to obtain goods and services” and breached the “highest standards of ethical code.”

“I hope you will simply take him at his word,” Hyland said, after quoting a statement Kenoi made to Honolulu media last year admitting to charging personal expenses to the county credit card despite prohibitions on personal use. The mayor said he thought it was OK if he paid it back.

“That’s it, really,” Hyland added. “That’s all that’s necessary for you to find. Ask him to resign.”

But for those hoping to see Kenoi step down over the controversy, the ethics board might be a dead end.

If it heard the complaint, the board would first have an informal hearing. If it then finds the mayor acted inconsistent with the ethics code, the board’s actions likely would be limited to advising him not to do it again, said Gary Murai, Maui County Deputy Corporation Counsel.

Murai is assisting the board with the ethics complaint on behalf of Hawaii County Corporation Counsel to avoid a conflict of interest.

The board could only recommend penalties to a higher body, such as the County Council, following a formal hearing if Kenoi continued to misuse the pCard, he said.

Since Kenoi’s pCard was revoked in April 2015, that doesn’t appear to be a possibility.

In addition to Hyland, four Big Island residents testifying from Hilo and Kohala urged the board to take action.

Some said they worried the board would lose jurisdiction on the matter shortly following the end of trial, leaving no opportunity for the county to address the controversy.

So far, the County Council has been resistant to discussing the issue.

“It seems you are the only county entity that may act soon,” said Cory Harden of Hilo, after distributing Kenoi’s police booking mugshot to the members.

Keeping Kenoi in office “teaches our young people a civic lesson they don’t need,” she said.

Others said the county was holding Kenoi to a different standard than county employees.

“The call is being made for this board to take action today so that it is clear that the County of Hawaii takes swift action to censure violations and makes it clear that no one is above the law — including the mayor,” said Richard Dinges of Hilo.

Kenoi’s supporters note that he reimbursed the county for the charges.

While some reimbursements occurred within a matter of days, other charges took months and sometimes years to pay back.

In total, Kenoi reimbursed the county for $31,112.59 in pCard charges, including about $9,500 after his card was revoked. The reimbursements included personal charges and miscellaneous expenses related to his mayoral duties.

He spent a total of about $130,000 with the card before it was revoked.

County records obtained by the Tribune-Herald show he is now using his secretary’s pCard to book flights and hotels for official travel. County officials say that is allowed.

An audit report the county legislative auditor published last July found $3,689.34 in pCard charges in the Mayor’s Office deemed personal and another $17,723.04 that did not have a transaction description or were listed as “miscellaneous – county to be reimbursed.” Three separate charges totaling $2,271.03 in the office were considered to be of questionable public purpose or did not follow county policy, including airfare for a Big Island surfer.

Another $6,278 in personal pCard charges were found in the Department of Liquor Control.

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The audit notes that $282.95 in personal or miscellaneous transactions were not reimbursed until brought to management’s attention.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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