HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Greg Nishioka said he is not resigning as administrator of the Honolulu Liquor Commission even though he gave up his 28-year legal career as an attorney and admitted to nearly 50 ethics violations in his law practice.
The commission placed him on administrative leave with pay late Thursday to investigate the ethics case. His assistant administator, Anna Hirai, will serve as acting administrator in the interim.
Nishioka has been administrator of the city Liquor Commission since March of 2011. His ethical confessions raise questions about whether he's fit to run the agency that has had a history of ethical problems and liquor inspectors who went to prison for accepting bribes in recent years.
He oversees a $4 million annual budget and staff of about 50 people who regulate liquor sales at roughly 1,400 Oahu bars, nightclubs, restaurants and other establishments.
According to a filing by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the organization that investigates misconduct by lawyers, Nishioka resigned as a lawyer instead of facing discipline and admitted to 47 ethical violations earlier this year.
Nishioka confessed to "commingling and misappropriating client funds" and "falsely communicating the nature of his practice through the use of a misleading name for his (law) firm," where he worked before taking the city job.
He also admitted to "failing to respond to the ODC's lawful demands for information during the resulting investigations" and "engaging in deceitful conduct," according to an order with the state Supreme Court filed Feb. 11.
By resigning as a lawyer, Nishioka avoided public disclosure of the details of the cases against him, which will remain secret.
Nishioka declined an on-camera interview Thursday but told Hawaii News Now the complaints came from four clients of his former law practice.
"All the disputes that were involved have been resolved and I'm moving on with my life," Nishioka said.
He would not say if he paid clients back any money.
Nishioka said he does not intend to resign from the Liquor Commission, because "it's two unrelated matters as far as I'm concerned. This involved me alone."
"If you look at what has happened during my tenure at the liquor commission, there have been a lot of positive things. We have improved customer service. We have made positive progress at the agency," Nishioka added.
"I don't plan on practicing law again. I enjoy what I'm doing here," Nishioka said.
Even though this order was filed on Feb. 11, Nishioka did not tell his boss, Liquor Commission Chairman Mike Yamaguchi, about his admitted ethical lapses until Hawaii News Now notified Yamaguchi about them late this morning.
Nishioka also did not tell Mayor Kirk Caldwell or members of his administration about his ethical admissions, Caldwell's spokesman said.
Sources said Nishioka did not tell his co-workers at the commission about his ethics problems either. They found out when a Hawaii News Now reporter began calling the offices first thing Thursday morning, sources said. Liquor Commission employees were issued a memo later in the day telling them not to speak to reporters about the issue, sources said.
Nishioka said his lawyer was supposed to have notified the Liquor Commission about his case more than a month ago, but "that notification was not made."
In another case, records show Bank of Hawaii sued Nishioka's law firm, Nishioka and Fujioka, for defaulting on a $65,000 line of credit, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported in March 2011, the same month he became liquor administrator.
Nishioka's city salary is listed at $104,500 a year.
Yamaguchi, who chairs the Liquor Commission, released a statement late Thursday afternoon that said, "The Commissioners will discuss this matter and consider what investigative and/or administrative actions are to be taken, and we will share those to the extent we are able."
"Because this is a personnel-related matter, the Commission cannot provide further comment at this time. It's important to note that the day-to-day operations of the HLC continue as the Commission effectively and fairly administer and enforce Hawaii's liquor laws," Yamaguchi said.
The mayor does not appoint the administrator, the Liquor Commission does.
"The mayor's office spoke with members of commission today and they are discussing the matter tonight," Caldwell's spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said Thursday afternoon. "The mayor will be monitoring the situation."
Broder Van Dyke did not say whether Caldwell feels that Nishioka should step down from his city post.
The liquor administrator is an at-will employee of the commission, who is exempt from civil service protections. That means it's easier to fire a person from that position that from city civil service posts.
The previous liquor administrator, Dewey Kim, resigned from the commission after employees filed hostile workplace complaints against him.
The administrator before Kim, Wally Weatherwax, had civil service protection and fought efforts to replace him after most of the commission's inspectors were indicted for taking bribes. He eventually departed the commission.