HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - After months of investigation, a 16-member grand jury indicted Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi on theft charges Wednesday in connection with his alleged misuse of a government credit card.
Kenoi was charged with two counts of second-degree felony theft, two counts of misdemeanor theft, three counts of tampering with government records and one count of false swearing.
The felony theft charges are each punishable by up to five years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.
State Attorney General Doug Chin said his office sought the indictment after an "intensive investigation" of Kenoi's conduct from 2011 to 2015.
Political onlookers say the indictment is almost certainly a career-ending blow for a mayor who was once considered a rising star in Hawaii politics.
"It's one of such magnitude that I think politically it's almost impossible to recover from," said Hawaii News Now political analyst Colin Moore. "To get a mayor indicted for a crime is serious for any community."
Kenoi continues to maintain he didn't do anything wrong, but has apologized to Hawaii Island residents.
Since taking office, Kenoi has racked up more than $120,000 on his county purchasing card, or pCard. Nearly all of that was for legitimate business travel, but about $9,000 was spent on personal items, including for high-end hotels and pricey meals.
He also used the card at Oahu hostess bars. Kenoi's used his pCard to pay for a $900 night at the Club Evergreen hostess bar back in 2013, and a $400 outing at the Camelot Restaurant and Lounge in 2009.
County purchasing credit cards are given to government workers to pay for supplies and work-related small purchases, and their use is supposed to be strictly monitored.
Kenoi has said he always planned to pay back the money he spent on personal purchases, but prosecutors are expected to argue that he only did so after he was warned or told to return the money.
If Kenoi is convicted before his term runs out at the end of the year, the law doesn't require him to resign his office but legal experts say he would be under pressure to do so.
Calls to resign
"If I was in the position, I would resign," said state Sen. Lorraine Inouye (D-Hilo, Hamakua, Waimea, Waikoloa, Kona), who served as Big Island mayor from 1990 to 1992.
"We all love Billy," said Inouye. "I've had a good working relationship with him. And it's sad to see this happen. However, I think it's gone too far. And it's so unfortunate."
Longtime State Rep. Cindy Evans (D-North Kona, North Kohala, South Kohala) said the situation has been hard on the island.
"Should the consequence be resigning? I'm not going to be the one to say that," she said. "But I believe people normally believe there has to be a consequence for this."
She added, "I think they've forgiven him, actually, most people. I think people are angry. I think some have moved past the anger just to say it was poor judgment and he's paying the the price."
First-term state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura of Puna said Kenoi should be praised for some of his work, including how residents when a lava flow threatened Pahoa town in 2014.
"For that I must commend him," he said, "but the public needs to know, nobody's above the law. the public needs to know what's going on," she said.
'A sad day'
Kenoi was 39 years old when he took office in 2008, becoming one of Hawaii Island's youngest mayors. He was the former executive assistant to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, a fixture on the Big Island.
"It's a sad day for Billy and his family and it's a sad day for everybody on this island in regards to government, relationship with government workers," said Kim, who has pulled papers to run for his old job. "Regardless of where you are, even with people who feel joy about this, it is a sad day that this has happened."
During the first several years of his tenure, Kenoi garnered statewide attention for his down-to-earth style and ability to bring together a diversity of stakeholders to find solutions. He was widely seen as a potential candidate for statewide office.
The last time a Hawaii mayor was indicted was in 1977, when Mayor Frank Fasi faced charges of accepting a $500,000 bribe from a developer. The charges were subsequently dropped.