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 Tuesday, but prosecutors said he 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’s alcohol purchases at a mainland hotel bar aimed 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.
Deputy Attorney General Michelle Puu in her opening statement outlined 15 transactions on Kenoi’s purchasing card from 2011 to 2014.
She told the jury that when Kenoi became mayor it was expected “he would serve his community, not that he would serve himself.” He was expected “to follow the rules, not operate as if he were above them, and county moneys were for the benefit of this community, not for the benefit of one.”
Nancy Cook-Lauer, the West Hawaii Today reporter who first reported on Kenoi’s alleged misuse 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.
The initial Cook-Lauer story included payment of a Honolulu hostess bar tab of nearly $900, but that and numerous other purchases — including a surfboard and bicycle — are not a part of the charges.
Eddins said the County Charter provided the authority for the mayor to authorize expenses, including meals and alcohol.
FORMER county Finance Director Nancy Crawford, who served from 2011 to 2014, said the pCard was not for personal purchases. However, she said, the mayor could authorize his personal purchases. “The mayor authorizes his own purchase of liquor,” she said.
Crawford recalled that in responding to Cook-Lauer’s request for documents, she and Kevin Dayton, then-executive director of the mayor’s office, discussed redacting information from pCard statements. Crawford said it was her understanding that any reimbursement for personal purchases (labeled miscellaneous purchase/county to be reimbursed) did not have to be disclosed to the media.
Dayton, currently the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Capitol bureau chief, was asked whether he was aware some information regarding the mayor’s pCard use was being withheld. “I believe at times some of the transactions were not released to the media. I’m not sure when,” he testified. He said he was given summaries and didn’t know what was being left off.
Crawford said one receipt showing all alcoholic beverages and no food appeared to be for a public purpose and not a private expense. The County Code, she said, gave the mayor broad authority, and although there is no mention of alcohol in the code, she said it was her understanding that it was acceptable to purchase alcohol while entertaining dignitaries and for gifts.
Crawford testified that the County Code would supersede the pCard policy, and that the pCard policy of no alcohol purchases was for department heads and did not pertain to the mayor.
Puu also presented receipts showing large purchases of alcohol that the mayor had not provided to the Finance Department.
Some of the receipts had been 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.
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.
Crawford had testified that personal charges were supposed to be reimbursed within two to three months but that there was no policy.
Puu said the reimbursements range from four to 26 months after the purchase date, and many followed requests by the media for pCard records.
AN ALL-ALCOHOL expense for $422.69 at Sansei Seafood & Sushi Bar was not reimbursed until 294 days later.
Kenoi’s nephew Daniel Kailiawa testified his uncle did not make it to his June 18, 2011, wedding, but he gave him a two-night stay at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, which was charged on the mayor’s pCard and not paid back until 250 days later.
Dayton served as the mayor’s executive assistant beginning in December 2008 when the mayor took office until 2011, then returned as executive director for the mayor’s office from 2012 to 2015.
He testified that his farewell party was thrown by the mayor at the Hilo Yacht Club on Oct. 30, 2011. But on the mayor’s pCard summary, the gathering was listed as a meeting, and the prosecution said it was an example of the mayor tampering with a government record.
Dayton, who called the mayor a good friend, said he could not recall alcoholic beverages that were listed on the receipt being consumed. He said there were 10 to 12 attendees, including former Managing Director Wally Lau and the mayor.
Eddins in his opening statement said the gathering was a dual-purpose working meeting.
He also said a $479 receipt for largely alcohol from the Hilton Lobby Bar in Baltimore, submitted as “refreshments for the U.S. Conference of Mayors,” was an example of the mayor building relationships after being elected as one of 11 mayors to the group’s advisory board. When the son of the head of the Conference of Mayors came to Hawaii island, “you bet the mayor showed them a good time,” Eddins said, calling it a clear-cut county purpose for taking his family to lunch and labeling it “Conference of Mayors visitors” in a sworn affidavit.
Kenoi’s wife, Takako, two sisters and two other attorneys, including Howard Luke, who has represented him before the County Ethics Commission, sat in the gallery.
A family friend, who asked not to be named and said he grew up with Kenoi and that their parents knew one another, said he wanted to be there to hear opening statements. He threw a shaka to Kenoi during a break, then shook his hand.
Deputy Attorney General Michelle Puu in her opening statement outlined 15 transactions on Kenoi’s purchasing card from 2011 to 2014. An earlier version of this story indicated the wrong date range.