HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi rejected a plea deal offered by state prosecutors, sources said, paving the way for his theft indictment Wednesday.
One reason Kenoi turned down a plea bargain, according to an experienced defense attorney, is that he could lose his license to practice law with any conviction in this case.
"If he gets a conviction, any kind of criminal conviction, then the Office of Disciplinary Counsel would be involved. There would be a separate independent investigation and then he'd have to address that matter before the Hawaii Supreme Court," said Myles Breiner, a defense attorney and former deputy city prosecutor.
In the case against Kenoi, according to two well-known criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors will have to prove whether Kenoi intended to steal from taxpayers.
"They'd have to prove that he had the intent. Not reckless, but the specific intent to defraud the county of those funds," Breiner said.
Eric Seitz, a lawyer who's defended several Hawaii officials in public corruption cases, agreed.
"Did he intend to deprive somebody permanently of property? And that's going to be very difficult to prove, especially since he says 'Oh, I intended to pay it all back, and I have paid it all back,'" Seitz said.
Kenoi and his attorneys have said while he broke county purchasing card rules and bought personal items, he paid the county the money back, even though it was years later and only after a reporter started asking about the expenses.
On Wednesday, Kenoi spoke about the case during a speech to Big Island business leaders.
"I stand here in 2016, my last year as mayor of the county of Hawaii in front of all of you, to tell you I would never disrespect our county, disrespect you by taking anything," he said.
Kenoi has said he will not step down and his constituents were split Thursday on whether he should do so.
Interviewed in downtown Hilo, Atete Kalamaakapanui, said Kenoi should step aside.
"There's suspicion there. And you don't want somebody running in the government that has any kind of suspicious record at all. You need to be squeaky clean," Kalamaakapanui said.
Big Island resident Mae Higashi had a different opinion.
"I think he's a good mayor. And he just has a couple of more months to serve. They should let him serve out his term. Whatever's happened to him, I think he's owned up to it. And he should just be forgiven. We all make mistakes," Higashi said.
Kenoi's attorney, Todd Eddins, declined comment Thursday. Kenoi was not available for comment.
Seitz said a criminal conviction in Kenoi's case is not a sure thing.
"Your reputation is going to be tarnished, your credibility is going to be affected, but that doesn't make you out to be a thief," Seitz said.