Former state Department of Human Services Director Rachael Wong has filed a sexual harassment complaint against former House Speaker Joe Souki — a political icon from Maui who for decades has been one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state.
Wong, when reached for comment by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, would not describe incidents or circumstances that triggered her filing against Souki, other than to say the events she described in her complaint occurred “in the course of my work.”
As director of the Department of Human Services in 2015 and 2016, Wong oversaw a state department with more than 2,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $3 billion. State department heads are often required to meet with state lawmakers to advocate for administration initiatives or for funding.
Wong said she won’t discuss specifics because those details are the subject of her formal complaint, which is currently under investigation by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. “I don’t want to talk about the actual case because now there’s a process going on,” she said.
After the incident, “I was unable to do my job,” Wong said. “There were constraints after that experience where I could no longer do my job, which means paying visits to, speaking with, the key people involved in government.”
Souki, 84, refused to comment on the complaint Wednesday, and referred questions to his lawyer
Michael Green. Green said Wong is complaining about an incident three years ago when Souki was speaker, and Wong attended a meeting in Souki’s office with another representative.
“She went to shake his hand, and he kissed her goodbye,” Green said. “What she said was, they spoke, and he made some comment about being ‘perky,’ and I don’t know what that means, and it was three years ago, but when she went to shake his hand goodbye, I think he kissed her on the cheek.”
“I mean, what the hell are they talking about? It’s three years ago. She just decided now three years later that that must have been sexual harassment? It’s nuts,” Green said. “It’s crazy. If a guy is going to do something stupid like that, he’s not going to do it in front of another representative, for God’s sake. I don’t see anything he did that she’s complaining about that would make me think it’s sexual harassment.”
Wong also alleged that when Souki got up from his chair after the meeting, “he adjusted his pants,” Green said. He added sarcastically, “Really? Well that’s pretty horrible. It’s crazy, you know. I don’t see anything she said that would rise to the level of sexual harassment in normal conversation. I mean, today it’s kind of crazy. You can’t say anything to anyone.”
Green said Wednesday he did not recall the name of the other representative who was present at the meeting.
Souki, (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku), has served in the House since 1982 and served for years as chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee. He was the speaker from 1993 to 1999, when he was forced out of the top job in a House reorganization. He retook the speaker’s job in 2013 in another political coup, and held it until he was replaced last year by Rep. Scott Saiki.
Wong, 46, said she filed her complaint in September or October, which was more than a year after she resigned as director of DHS in August 2016.
“In the moment, when it happened and during my tenure with the state, I felt powerless to do anything due to the risk of retaliation against me, against the department, DHS, and against (the) executive branch,” Wong said. “It’s an abuse of power and representative of where we’re broken.”
Wong said she was also influenced by watching the #MeToo movement play out on social media and in the press, exposing sexual misconduct by businessmen, celebrities and politicians.
“I can certainly say as there was this larger discourse going on, it caused me to reflect more and more, and I really reached a point where I could no longer not say anything,” Wong said. “It’s motivated because of my love for Hawaii. This is not because something happened to me, and I want something to happen. It’s because I love Hawaii and our community so much. It’s because I’m sad that this is where we are.”
She added: “Over the last year I’ve spoken with and learned from many local women who have had similar and worse experiences, and not one of them is in a place where she can publicly share her story, and that’s what’s really significant.”
Wong said she first discussed the incident involving Souki with Gov. David Ige after she left her job in state government, and told him she was considering filing a complaint. “He shared that he fully supported my decision, and doing so aligned with his own integrity and values,” Wong said in a written statement.
Ige said in an interview Wednesday that “I told her it’s zero tolerance for me for any harassment, so she should do what she thinks is right.” He said Wong did not tell him about the incident at the time it happened or while she was part of Ige’s cabinet.
Wong, who is married, started a privately funded professional leadership development initiative after she left state government called “One Shared Future” for public sector employees.
Dan Gluck, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said he couldn’t discuss the case because ethics complaints are confidential.
In general, Gluck said the “fair treatment” provisions of the state ethics code are designed to prevent state officials from abusing their positions “to give unwarranted treatment to themselves or anyone else.”
Commission staff receive “a wide range of complaints alleging conduct that may violate that statute, and so we’ll investigate every complaint that we get,” Gluck said.
Green said he has filed a response to Wong’s ethics complaint, but “there’s got to be some parameters where a guy’s life is not ruined publicly because somebody comes forward three years later and says things that are capable in my view, frankly, of two or three different interpretations, especially in Hawaii. What she’s complaining of are capable of multiple interpretations. It’s not like ‘You’ve got a great butt.’”
He continued, “I’m just saying, now the guy, if they go forward, and they have a duty to go forward, he’s going to be all over the newspapers — for nothing,” Green said. “They are coming out of the woodwork, man, they are coming, and not just for him, for everybody.”