Defense witnesses seek to portray Kenoi as public servant, relat - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Defense witnesses seek to portray Kenoi as public servant, relationship-builder

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HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi's former managing director knew as far back as 2011 that the mayor was using his government-issued credit card for personal purchases.

In testimony in Kenoi's theft trial Tuesday, former Managing Director William Takaba also said Kenoi didn't always have receipts to track his purchases.

"Rather than look for the receipt or create an affidavit for the receipt, he would just pay for it and that would be it. And the secretary would write: 'to be reimbursed,'" said Takaba, who served 39 years with the county under 11 mayors.

Kenoi is charged with two counts of second-degree theft, two counts of third-degree theft and making a false statement under oath in connection with his alleged misuse of a government purchasing card.

Takaba was one of five witnesses who took the stand Tuesday on Kenoi's behalf. Also on the witness stand Tuesday -- local chef Sam Choy, who said he was impressed with Kenoi from the moment he first ran for Hawaii County mayor two terms ago. 

The state is focusing on 15 pCard transactions in their case, including a substantial Longs Drugs bill for alcohol, which Kenoi reportedly described as being for “Sam Choy’s Poke Contest volunteer appreciation event” on his pCard records.

Prosecutors allege Kenoi misused his pCard by repeatedly making personal purchases he never intended to reimburse taxpayers for, until he was questioned about the charges. But Kenoi's defense attorneys are arguing Kenoi is guilty of misjudgment, not theft. 

It's unclear whether Kenoi will take the stand in his own defense.

Testimony wrapped up early Tuesday, after Kenoi's defense team said the remaining witnesses were not immediately available. The trial is set to resume at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

On the witness stand Tuesday, Takaba described Kenoi as a devoted public servant who sought to ensure his county was getting its fair share.

He said the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye used to jokingly refer to Kenoi as "Billy the Bandit" because "he takes all the money from other counties and other jurisdictions and he brings it here," Takaba said.

On cross-examination, state deputy Attorney General Kevin Takata asked Takaba if spending on county purchasing cards has to be for a public purpose.

"And if it's not for public purpose -- the pCard holder has to reimburse the company for that expense, is that true?" Takata asked. 

"True," testified Takata. 

Takaba also testified that the county charter authorizes Kenoi to spend money on expenses that the mayor "deems fit."

He added that, ideally, personal purchases would be reimbursed within 30 to 60 days -- though there's no set policy.

Prosecutors say Kenoi waited more than nine months to pay back at least two restaurants tabs. 

Choy, meanwhile, acted as a character witness, describing Kenoi as a "champion" for Hawaii Island.

He said when he saw the mayor at the volunteer appreciation event, he knew "the volunteers will be taken care of. That's his DNA." Choy and other defense team witnesses also said the mayor's social behavior was just an example of his relationship-building efforts. 

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