HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Legal experts say it was risky for Mayor Billy Kenoi to take the stand in his felony theft trial. But it could pay off.
Kenoi testified for nearly three and half hours Wednesday, telling jurors that he didn't think he was doing anything wrong when he made personal purchases on his government credit card.
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."
Lawyer Kenneth Goodnow, who is vice chairman of the Hawaii County Board of Ethics, said he almost always tells his clients not to take the stand.
"Because they've got the burden they've got to prove the case," he said. But, he added, "I think the Mayor takes this really personally and it's almost more about his reputation than anything else so I can understand it."
During his testimony, Kenoi insisted he didn't do anything he wasn't authorized to do and maintained he believed it was OK to use his county purchasing card for personal charges so long as he paid taxpayers back.
Prosecutors say Kenoi never intended to reimburse taxpayers for the charges until he was questioned about them by the news media.
As the trial nears its close, community members are split on the mayor and his actions.
"I hope that he gets in trouble for all the money he stole from us," said Kenoi critic Edith Birdwell. "We live in a state where two out of three kids are food insecure but our mayor can spend our tax money going to hostess bars."
But Robert Contero says he continues to support Kenoi.
"He did a lot for this community and the people of Hilo and I don't really know what happened with this case but it's up to the jury to decide," he said. "The bottom line: Billy is a very good man."
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. His trial is in recess until Monday. When the court reconvenes, both sides will offer closing arguments.