HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - One of the biggest trials in Big Island history kicked off Tuesday, as Mayor Billy Kenoi sought to fight off charges of theft over his misuse of a government credit card.
In opening statements, a state prosecutor laid out the case against Kenoi, saying he made alcohol and other unauthorized purchases on his county credit card and didn't provide receipts for any of them.
Michelle Puu, of the state attorney general's office, said Kenoi charged Heineken beer, Crown Royal whiskey and pineapple juice at a Longs Drugs store and passed off the purchases as official county business.
The expense is one of 15 transactions prosecutors are bringing up in Kenoi's felony theft trial.
"Reimbursing funds after you're caught is not a mistake, that's theft," she said.
Puu says Kenoi claimed the March 17, 2013, purchase from Longs was for a Sam Choy's poke contest held during the day, even though a receipt prosecutors obtained showed he bought the alcohol at 7:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, Defense Attorney Todd Eddins sought to portray the mayor as having bad judgment, not criminal intent.
He said Kenoi bought the alcohol to thank volunteers for their work at the raw, cubed-fish contest.
And Eddins said Kenoi has reimbursed the county for all purchases that weren't authorized.
Kenoi is a "big hearted, big picture, Big Island guy," Eddins said. "He's not a thief."
With the kick-off of the trial, Kenoi becomes the first mayor in Hawaii since Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi to defend himself against criminal charges while still in office.
And fireworks are expected.
"I expect this to be a little bit of a celebrity trial for the Big Island. Billy Kenoi is a personality, he is a political celebrity," said defense attorney Victor Bakke, who is not part of Kenoi's legal team. "He's very well-liked and I think that's going to follow him into the courtroom."
Kenoi faces two felony and two misdemeanor theft charges, one charge of false swearing and several counts of tampering with a government record over his misuse of a county credit card.
The tampering charges involve the alleged falsification of records for meals at the Volcano House Restaurant and the Hilo Yacht Club. But he won't be on trial for using charging hundreds of dollars on that card at Honolulu hostess clubs.
Since Kenoi paid back these questionable credit card expenditures, legal experts said it's difficult to make a criminal case for them.
"There's a big difference between a professional luncheon at the Volcano House compared to an $800 (charge at a) hostess bar," said Bakke.
Big Island resident Lanric Hyland, who has filed ethics complaints against Kenoi, says convicting Kenoi will be difficult given his popularity.
"I would be shocked if there's not a hung jury," he said.
But he says justice still has to be done.
"I think Billy was a pretty good mayor. He did a lot ... but that doesn't mean that he shouldn't be held accountable," he said. "If you do the crime, you gotta be able to do the time."