HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi took the stand at his felony theft trial Wednesday, telling jurors that he thought it was OK to use his county credit card for personal charges as long as he paid taxpayers back.
When asked by his attorney whether it was his intention to "permanently deprive this county of money," Kenoi choked up and replied, "Absolutely not. I would never hurt this community. I'm offended even being accused."
Kenoi remained on the witness stand throughout much of the day, and got emotional several times as he described his humble upbringing and the values his parents taught him.
"My parents taught me simple values growing up," Kenoi said. "Me and my sisters were taught to be respectful. Treat everybody with aloha. To look out for people less fortunate than yourself."
Legal experts had been skeptical that Kenoi would testify in his own defense, saying it was a gamble that could open the door for tough questions from prosecutors. But Kenoi brought his affable, down-to-earth style to the witness stand, and portrayed his pCard misuse as a lapse of judgment, not a criminal act.
In cross-examination, Kenoi said he misspoke when he told reporters last year he used his county credit card for personal purchases because he didn't have a personal credit card.
"I didn't lie to them. It was a mistake that I made," he said. "I should have acknowledged the fact that I had a credit card that was kept at home and my wife handles the personal finances and I handled the county stuff."
The Big Island mayor is charged with two counts of second-degree theft, two counts of third-degree theft and making a false statement under oath.
Prosecutors say he misused his county-issued credit card by repeatedly making personal purchases that he never intended to reimburse taxpayers for -- and only did so when he was questioned about the charges.
State officials say Kenoi charged almost $130,000 on his county purchasing card, or pCard. Records indicate he has since reimbursed about $32,000, roughly a third of it after media reports were published about his spending.
Kenoi's defense team, meanwhile, says the county charter authorizes Kenoi to spend money on expenses that the mayor "deems fit" -- including alcohol. And Kenoi said Wednesday that many of the reimbursements that he made happened anywhere from 250 to 800 days after the purchases.
Kenoi was indicted in March 2016 after a year-long state attorney general's investigation prompted by a report from Hawaii Island newspapers that Kenoi used his pCard to pay a nearly $900 tab at a Honolulu hostess bar. That revelation and others led the county to initiate its own pCard audit in July 2015.
Officials reportedly found 145 transactions from the mayor's office -- adding up to nearly $24,000 -- that they say raised flags as either failing to follow county policy, having a questionable public purpose or possibly violating state law. According to the internal review, county officials characterized about $4,000 as personal charges -- among them: a hotel stay, a surfboard purchase and alcohol.
The prosecution has narrowed its case to 15 specific pCard transactions. Kenoi's alcohol purchases on his pCard, specifically, have been a focus of the trial, with prosecutors describing them as "exorbitant." They say Kenoi wasn't honest about the purchases and attempted to cover them up.
However, Kenoi's defense team says he purchased alcohol as a way to build relationships, describing it as "the mayor's style" and a way to build relationships with the community.
On the stand Wednesday, Kenoi repeated those claims, saying that relationship-building is key to his job.
"People gotta like you. People gotta want to help you. If people don't want to help you, they aren't going to help your community," he said. "People no help your community you're going to get huger unemployment. You're not going get federal dollars. You're not going get significant assistance with important projects to make a difference in everybody's lives. You're not. It's not going to happen."
Earlier in the day, meanwhile, Kenoi choked up as he recalled his parents and his upbringing.
"My mom and dad didn't have much education. My dad went to 8th grade and so it was very important -- education," he said. "But they also taught me to work hard."