Hawaii County review of Kenoi’s alleged spending scandal stalls, while state investigation continues

Hawaii County review of Kenoi’s alleged spending scandal stalls, while state investigation continues

HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - One day after Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi said the state investigation into his use of a county-issued credit card has not impacted his effectiveness, others are saying that's not the case.

In an exclusive interview with Hawaii News Now on Wednesday, Kenoi said, "I cannot point to a single project or initiative on Hawaii Island that hasn't received our attention, hasn't received our leadership or is not moving forward."

The state attorney general is looking into accusations Kenoi used his county purchasing card, or p-card, to make nearly $130,000 in personal purchases -- including trips to hostess bars. Kenoi has since paid back $31,000 to taxpayers, and the investigation is on-going.

Meanwhile, critics say the county's own investigation has stalled.

"I think that the longer this goes on, the longer it's sort of hurting the county," said Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who represents the Kohala district.

The county's Board of Ethics has only met twice in the last seven months -- canceling five meetings because there weren't enough members present to conduct official business.

"He is responsible to appoint members of the boards and commissions, and here we have the Board of Ethics -- the key board that should be addressing issues of accountability. He is accountable to no one else. It just leaves it that you're saying, 'This person is above the law', and that's not the way it should be. We are all accountable," said Wille.

According to Wille, the board is supposed to have five members, but there are only three because Kenoi hasn't filled two vacancies -- appointments that would likely be criticized as a conflict of interest. One seat has been vacant since January 2014 and the other since the beginning of this year. Records indicate Kenoi has made nominations for other boards and commissions in the last eight months.

"If he doesn't want to appoint those members, then he should defer to the managing director -- but not doing it as the managing director as a puppet, allow him to independently select members," said Wille.

While those spots remain empty, Wille says investigations like the county's own inquiry into Kenoi and other allegations of misconduct are not moving forward. On top of it, she says the Board can't take any action unless all three members agree.

"It's not acceptable. The current situation is not acceptable. My aim is that the people don't have trust in the government and they need to have trust -- that there's accountability, no matter who you are," Wille said.

Experts say the cloud of suspicion that now lingers over Kenoi until the attorney general's office makes a decision hurts both him and his constituents.

They say lack of trust in the government is to blame.

"I remember a time when we used to have much, much more trust in our government," described former Hawai'i Island Mayor Harry Kim, who says if the people in the community you're elected to represent, no longer trust you -- the system falls apart.

Kim says the state investigation into Kenoi has created a climate of uncertainty that makes an already complicated job, that much more challenging.

"I think there is that word of trust -- in regards to what he's doing or not doing and the only way we can alleviate that is for whatever the Attorney General's office is going to do - do it, so people know what's going to happen," said Kim.

Kim says in the eight months since the Hawai'i County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth requested the state investigate Kenoi's expenditures, there has been no development.

"That's a long time in people's eyes and it is a long time to be hanging. I can't even imagine how long a time it is for the mayor himself and his family, but I think that's the crux of a lot of the problems -- is that it has taken such a long time, and whatever the outcome I wish it was over," said Kim.

Kenoi still has a year left in his term, but with no indication of whether he'll face criminal charges, administrative discipline or perhaps no further action, Kim says the investigation is a distraction.

"I think that's the bottom line of a lot of dissatisfaction of what's going on -- of not knowing -- which is the worst thing in the world, just not knowing," said Kim.

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