Laughter, tears mark fourth day of witness testimony in Kenoi trial

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Sam Choy didn’t take long to change the mood in Mayor Billy Kenoi’s criminal trial Tuesday morning.

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Sam Choy didn’t take long to change the mood in Mayor Billy Kenoi’s criminal trial Tuesday morning.

The celebrity chef, wearing a blue aloha shirt, paused briefly as he made his way to the witness stand and flashed a shaka and a big grin to a television camera, prompting laughs from the Hilo courtroom.

After three days of testimony circling around allegations of theft and fraud, the moment of levity was easily received.

Kenoi was indicted on theft and other charges for 15 Hawaii County purchasing card transactions, including one that involved alcohol in connection with Sam Choy’s Poke Contest in 2013.

Choy spoke about his poke business and annual contest. He recalled meeting Kenoi while he was running for mayor in 2008. The meeting started at a McDonald’s and ended up at Costco in Kona.

“We went to Costco because the hot dog and soda is only like a dollar-something,” Choy said. “That’s a good buy, guys, and it’s a good hot dog. I did my research.”

He also poked fun at Kenoi’s poke skills.

“We threw Mayor Kenoi into the mix,” Choy said. “And, well, he didn’t win.”

Kenoi, who has maintained a stoic exterior during the trial, chuckled along with the rest of the courtroom.

Attorney Todd Eddins, who is defending Kenoi, previously said the mayor gave the alcohol to volunteers at the event as a show of appreciation.

Prosecutors say the $125.95 transaction on St. Patrick’s Day occurred in the evening, hours after the contest ended.

Choy, who said he left the contest at about 3:30 p.m., did not corroborate the defense’s explanation. But he did act as a character witness for the mayor.

“When I saw Mayor Kenoi there, I knew the volunteers would be taken cared of because that’s his DNA,” Choy said.

He said he knew that from seeing Kenoi bring food to a Merrie Monarch Festival after-party.

“See, that’s the thing that makes him a champion,” Choy continued. “Nobody looks at that. Nobody ever sees that.”

Jurors also heard from former county Managing Director William Takaba, attorney Thomas Waters, Shirley Cheung of Oceanic Time Warner Cable, and Sansei restaurant manager Ron Gonzales.

Kenoi hired Takaba, who was previously county finance director, when Kenoi was elected in 2008. Takaba retired in 2012.

At one point, the mayor teared up as Takaba spoke about Kenoi’s family and the mayor’s busy schedule.

“He is very family oriented,” Takaba said. “He would attend all of his children’s events. He would make time for them.”

Kenoi could be seen dabbing an eye with a tissue, which he pressed into a ball and set on the table in front of him.

Takaba also testified that he believed Kenoi had the authority to purchase unlimited amounts of alcohol if it had a county purpose. The pCard policy says alcohol is restricted “unless specifically authorized.”

Most of the purchases connected with Kenoi’s indictment involve large amounts of alcohol.

Takaba, who wrote the county’s first pCard policies and manual in 2003, said the county code gives the mayor broad powers that supersede any rules or guidelines.

Eddins referred to a section of the code that says the mayor can authorize expenses in excess of established limits or may approve “exceptions with good cause to any provision relating to travel and expenses.”

“It’s very broad,” Takaba said. “He has the final authority.”

Kevin Takata, state deputy attorney general, noted that the code doesn’t mention the purchase of alcohol.

Takaba also testified that Kenoi paid back pCard expenses that were clearly county business.

“He was very generous in using his own money to pay for county expenses,” he said.

But the mayor has the final say for deciding what purchases are personal and need to be reimbursed, Takaba acknowledged.

Kenoi reimbursed the county for 14 of the 15 pCard transactions.

The payments occurred between four and 26 months after the transactions, totaling $4,129.31 were made.

Prosecutors say they usually occurred in response to media requests for Kenoi’s pCard records.

In total, Kenoi reimbursed the county for $22,292 of his approximately $130,000 in pCard charges between January 2009 and March 2015. Another $9,500 was paid back after Big Island newspapers reported he spent nearly $900 at a Honolulu hostess bar.

Kenoi said then he made the additional payments to err on the side of caution.

Takaba said he didn’t recall attending a farewell event in 2011 at the Hilo Yacht Club for former Kenoi aide Kevin Dayton, but he suspects that he did.

Kenoi used his pCard to cover the $300 luncheon attended by senior staff. A receipt presented by prosecutors showed 10 glasses of wine and three cocktails were purchased. The mayor’s pCard transaction summary described the charge as for a “Strategic Planning Luncheon.”

Dayton and Paulette Wilson, Kenoi’s secretary, testified last week they didn’t recall seeing alcohol.

The county officials said the event was used to discuss county business and Dayton’s transition.

Waters and Cheung both attended a dinner with Kenoi in 2013. The mayor paid for the $300 bill at Tsukuneya Style in Honolulu with his pCard.

Waters said Kenoi discussed hiring him as the county’s corporation counsel.

Cheung, a law school classmate of the mayor, said Kenoi asked her about who at the cable company he should speak with about broadband issues on Hawaii Island. Eddins said broadband was one of the mayor’s priorities.

Waters said beer and sake was ordered.

Gonzales testified that Kenoi and about a dozen others had dinner and drinks at his restaurant during the Big Island Film Festival in 2011.

The bill that night, covered by the pCard, was $422.69, with a large tip. Prosecutors say the receipt only showed alcohol.

Gonzales said food was provided free of charge.

He said Kenoi told him the dinner was for staff and “VIPs” of the film festival.

On Monday, John De Fries testified that he had drinks and pupus with Kenoi at Romano’s Macaroni Grill in 2011. The $130 charge also is part of the indictment.

Prosecutors say the receipt showed seven leaning bellini cocktails and a glass of wine were ordered.

De Fries, who was the director of the Hokulia development, said Kenoi wanted to talk about attracting conferences to the island and his project. He said no one else was present.

De Fries is now the county’s Research and Development director.

Judge Dexter Del Rosario dropped Kenoi’s three records-tampering charges Monday.

He now faces two counts of second-degree theft, two counts of third-degree theft and one count of false swearing.

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Witness testimony continues at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Hilo Circuit Court.

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

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