Hilo, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) – The FBI has gotten involved in an investigation into allegations of voter fraud on the Big Island, sources told Hawaii News Now Friday.
The elections office in Hilo run by Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi shut down Monday for what she called an "audit" less than three weeks before the primary election, without further explanation.
That raised concern among politicians and other elections officials in the state, especially since for the last five days, Kawauchi has not returned State Elections Officer Scott Nago's calls to brief him on problems in her office.
About one week ago, state officials received reports about possible voter fraud on the Big Island, allegations that someone was doctoring absentee ballots, sources said.
State officials then notified FBI agents, members of the public corruption team based at the FBI's Honolulu office, sources said.
It's unclear whether the FBI will launch its own voter fraud investigation.
A source said the FBI is at least in the information gathering phase.
"We can't confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigation," said Special Agent Tom Simon, an FBI spokesman.
At the Hawaii County Clerk's office's request, two state Attorney General's office lawyers met with Kawauchi at the AG's office on Queen Street Thursday afternoon, according to Josh Wisch, an AG's spokesman. The AG's office had not asked for the meeting, Wisch said.
She met with Robyn Chun, the deputy AG who deals with election issues for the state as well as First Deputy Russell Suzuki, who previously handled state election matters before he ascended to the second-in-command post at the AG's office.
The meetings lasted for hours Thursday afternoon, a source said.
Wisch refused to explain what their discussions were about.
"It's departmental policy to never confirm or deny the existence of any investigation," Wisch said.
Michael Udovick, the Hawaii County lawyer who's supposed to represent the county elections office on legal matters, said, "I didn't know she was talking to the AG. The only thing we heard was what I heard on your broadcast," referring to Hawaii News Now's story about the voter fraud allegations that broke Thursday night at 6 p.m.
Udovick said Kawauchi has not returned his calls, meaning she is not communicating with her own county lawyer assigned to the clerk's office.
Her office has not returned Hawaii News Now's calls and emails in the last two days, and reporters from other media organizations said her office has not responded to their requests for information either.
Government officials who asked to remain anonymous said she's sometimes hard to get ahold of and then sends them "rambling" emails days after they had asked for a meeting or information.
With just 15 days to go until the primary election, Hawaii County election officials are re-sending some voter registration notices after a first batch was sent with wrong information.
The problems are with the yellow voter registration notices that confirm voters' addresses and tell them which polling place to go to on primary election day, Saturday, Aug. 11.
Kawauchi has told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald some of the cards in the first mailing directed voters to incorrect polling places, problems she attributed to re-districting this year, which changed the boundaries of some districts.
In a news release sent to select news organizations Wednesday, the clerk's office said new yellow cards will be sent to voters who were mis-assigned to incorrect polling places. The mis-assignments affected fewer than 175 voters on two streets, the release said.
As of Wednesday, 5,212 yellow cards were returned to the office because their forwarding address had expired, the mail was undeliverable and other reasons, the release said. The county elections division will make every effort to contact those voters, the release said.
Nago wrote Kawauchi a letter Wednesday in which he pleaded with her to communicate with him about what was happening, since for two days she failed to respond to his requests for an update on the problems.
"It is imperative that you discuss this matter with us so we may have a better understanding of the scope of the problem," Nago said. He called her behavior "simply unacceptable on the part of a fellow election administrator."
State elections officials were unable to set up a meeting with her all this week, meaning for five days they've been unsuccessful at getting a briefing from her, said Rex Quidilla, a state elections spokesman.
Nago worries voters might disregard the second yellow card they receive and go to the wrong polling place.
"Ultimately, this may not only inconvenience voters but may lead to possible election challenges," Nago wrote in his letter to Kawauchi, referring to cases where candidates or their campaigns challenge the outcome of an election.
Earlier this year, following an investigation into activities at the county's election warehouse in Hilo, Yamauchi fired Hawaii County's longtime elections administrator Pat Nakamoto and three other elections staffers.
They employees were accused of drinking, storing alcohol and running a private business out of the warehouse that houses election supplies, while Nakamoto was accused of allowing the misbehavior to happen.
Nakamoto has since been reinstated after filing a grievance but Kawauchi has not allowed Nakamoto to return to her job, and put her on leave with pay, according to Nakamoto's attorney, Ted Hong.
This is Kawauchi's first election as clerk and she told the State Elections Commission at its May meeting that she had a "general understanding of election laws, administration and operations," according to draft minutes of the meeting.
Election Commissioner Patricia Berg expressed serious concern about the situation, saying "having new staff with little election experience in key positions and dealing with the compressed election preparation time, there is a real possibility that serious problems will arise," according to draft minutes of the meeting.
An attorney who worked in private practice and clerked for a judge, Kawauchi is a graduate of the UH William S. Richardson School of Law.
According to her biography on the Hawaii County website, she held three-year stints at a number of jobs recently. She was a clerk for Hawaii State Judge Greg Nakamura from 1998 to 2000, an associate at the law firm Carlsmith Ball from 2004 to 2006, then an associate at Tsuzaki Yeh and Moore from 2006 to 2008, and had her own law practice from 2008 to 2010. She also served as the assistant director of the Harvard Medical School Center of Excellence from 2002 to 2004, her bio said.
Kawauchi has held the clerk's job for less than two years, having been appointed by a unanimous vote of the Hawaii County Council in late 2010.