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Kenoi’s liquor purchases take center stage in trial’s opening day

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    Mayor Billy Kenoi stands with his attorneys Todd Eddins (right) and Richard Sing (left) during his trial today in Hilo Circuit Court.

HILO >> Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi’s attorney portrayed him as a 24/7 workhorse for the county on the opening day of testimony at Kenoi’s trial on theft and records tampering charges today, but prosecutors said the public servant crossed the line by using his government-issued purchasing card for lavish personal spending, including large amounts of alcohol.

“It was not his intent to permanently deprive the county of any money,” Defense attorney Todd Eddins said in his opening statement. The mayor may have purchased alcohol at a mainland hotel bar, but that was to build, nurture and strengthen relationships, Eddins said.

“That was his style of leadership,” he said. “Everything in the interest of this county.”

Kenoi is on trial before Judge Dexter Del Rosario in Circuit Court in Hilo after being indicted in March on four counts of theft, two of them second-degree felonies, and two third-degree; three counts of tampering with government records; and one count of false swearing or making a false statement under oath.

Before the indictment and in the wake of media reports Kenoi had admitted to inappropriate expenditures, including nearly $900 at a Honolulu hostess bar in 2013.

Two key prosecution witnesses took the stand after opening statements, in which State Deputy Attorney General Michelle Puu outlined the 15 transactions on Kenoi’s purchasing card from May 2011 to October 2011.

Nancy Cook-Lauer, the West Hawaii Today reporter who broke the story about Kenoi’s use of the county purchasing card, testified she requested pCard records for the mayor and other county heads and executive assistants for November 2010 through February 2012. The records, she said, did not include eight of the 15 transactions that are included in the charges.

Eddins tried to discredit Cook-Lauer, questioning her motives for doing the story and whether she wanted to see Kenoi convicted.

The initial story Cook-Lauer wrote included Kenoi’s payment of a Honolulu hostess bar tab of nearly $900, but that and many other personal purchases, which include a surfboard and bicycle, are not a part of the charges in the indictment.

Eddins said the county charter provided the authority for the mayor to authorize expenses, including meals and alcohol.

The second witness, former county Finance Director Nancy Crawford who was appointed by the mayor, appeared hesitant when testifying, explaining there were things she wasn’t supposed to speak about.

Crawford, who served from 2011 to 2014, said the pCard was not for personal purchases. She also said, however, that the mayor could authorize his personal purchases. “The mayor authorizes his own purchase of liquor,” she said, adding that she was aware of personal purchases.

In opening statements, Puu presented receipts showing large purchases of alcohol that the mayor did not provide to the Finance Department.

Some of the receipts in question were described as payment for dinner, including for staff and for volunteers at the Big Island Film Festival. But a receipt for $265 for liquor and $50 for beer showed no food, as Puu noted.

Some purchases were on Hawaii island while others were made on trips to Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Honolulu.

Eddins tallied the expenditures alleged by the prosecution as personal to be $4,129.31. He said that Kenoi reimbursed the county $3,929.31, for 14 out of the 15 transactions.

Puu said the reimbursements range from four to 26 months and many followed requests by the media for pCard records.

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