Former Human Services director accuses top lawmaker of sex harassment

Published: Feb. 1, 2018 at 6:53 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 at 8:39 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The former director of Hawaii's Department of Human Services has filed a formal complaint with the State Ethics Commission that accuses state Rep. Joe Souki of sexual harassment.

He was speaker of the House at the time of the alleged incident.

Rachael Wong, who now serves as the founder of the privately-funded One Shared Future initiative, led the department between from 2015 to 2016 and oversaw a $3 billion budget. The job involved asking lawmakers, Souki included, to support the department's policies and budget requests.

Hawaii News New spoke with Wong, who declined to be interviewed for this story and did not describe the specific incident, electing instead to release a statement confirming that she filed a complaint.

"In the moment and during my tenure with the state, I felt powerless to do anything due to the risk of retaliation against me, the department, and the executive branch," she wrote. "It is an abuse of power and representative of where we are broken, and I know I am not the only one."

Hawaii News Now also spoke with Rep. Souki, who was excused from Thursday's floor session of the state House. He referred comments to his attorney, Michael Green, who also confirmed that the complaint had been filed.

Green said the complaint centers on a meeting that occurred three years ago, in which Souki and Wong had just finished the meeting in a state Capitol conference room. When she offered a handshake, according to Green, Souki gave her kiss on the cheek.

He said there was also a DHS staff member in the room at the time.

"He never touched her. You are talking about a kiss, whether he asked for a kiss, that was it," said Green.

In his discussion with Hawaii News Now, Green questioned why Wong was coming forward now.

"People have the right to be offended by improper conduct or touching, but don't do this. It's ridiculous. It's kind of an outrage," he said.

Wong wrote that she spoke about the alleged incident for the first time with Gov. David Ige after she left the position, telling him that she was thinking about filing a complaint.

"He shared that he fully supported my decision and doing so aligned with his own integrity and values," said Wong.

Ige said in a statement: "There should be zero tolerance for harassment of any kind in the workplace or anywhere else. I trust that the Ethics Commission will do its job and conduct a fair and thorough investigation of the complaint."

The state Ethics Commission does not make complaints public. Wong said the complaint was filed last fall and it is still under investigation.

House Speaker Scott Saiki also released a statement on Thursday, saying that the House will await the Ethics Commissions findings before deciding on any action.

"The House of Representatives takes matters of workplace harassment very seriously," he said, in the statement. "In 2017, the House instituted a mandatory annual workplace harassment training for all House members and permanent employees (previously, the training had occurred every two years). At the training, employees are advised to report complaints to the House chief clerk.

The allegation has shaken the State Capitol, although few were willing to talk publicly about it. Some expressed shock at the allegation, while others stated their support of Souki. Others said they were not surprised and that the issue exposes the "good ol' boy" culture in local politics.

"We have to make sure that they can come to us and say that they need help," said state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who's in the Women's Legislative Caucus.

Hawaii advocates of the #MeToo movement say Wong is the first high-profile person in Hawaii to come forward since the movement started last year.

"What we are seeing through the #MeToo movement is it's pervasive. It's everywhere. There is not an industry that has not been touched by sexual harassment," said Kathleen Algire, director of public policy and advocacy at YWCA.

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