HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Former state House Speaker Joe Souki will resign as part of a settlement over sexual harassment complaints, but maintains he didn't do anything wrong.
"If I acted inappropriately, it was not in a manner that I was aware of," Souki said, at a news conference Wednesday.
At the same press briefing, his attorney read a statement from Souki: "I have absolutely no memory of ever acting inappropriately with any women at any time as a member of the House or in a private setting. I am greatly saddened that something I did was misunderstood and believed to be inappropriate conduct."
Souki's resignation is part of the State Ethics Commission agreement that stemmed from allegations filed last fall by former Director of Human Services Rachael Wong and several other women.
Wong said Wednesday that Souki's resignation and settlement agreement offers "closure for other woman and it also marks the beginning of a transformation that many say is long overdue."
She added, "We can and we must do better for the future."
Souki said the alleged misconduct happened between three to eight years ago.
In a statement, Wong said she did not want to share details of the harassment, but did say that it involved "abuse of his positional power to an extreme" and that he made "inappropriate comments specific to my physical appearance and an inappropriate request for physical contact beyond the traditional greetings we typically exchange in Hawaii."
Souki's lawyer, Michael Green, said the former House speaker decided to step down because he didn't feel it was appropriate to drag his family — or the his accusers — through hearings on the issue.
"The inappropriateness is in the eyes of the beholder," he said. "You can't win this fight."
In February, Green claimed the complaint was about an incident three years ago, when Souki gave Wong a kiss on the cheek at the end of a meeting.
But according to the settlement, Souki admitted to touching and kissing "more than one woman in ways that were inappropriate and unwelcome. He admits that this physical contact exceeded the boundaries of the customary 'aloha kiss.'"
He also said he made sexual comments regarding the physical appearance of several women.
Wong declined to go into specifics about the behavior, but did say that it happened during business hours and when the lawmaker's door was open.
"The findings show the clear inappropriateness" of what Souki did, she said.
Under the settlement, Souki must:
- Resign no later than March 30;
- Issue a public apology for his conduct;
- Pay an administrative penalty of $5,000;
- Not seek public office for at least two years.
Souki, 86, was first elected to the state House in 1982. He served as house speaker from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2013 to 2017.
In a statement, current House Speaker Scott Saiki said the House concurs with the settlement agreement and that the body "takes workplace harassment matters very seriously."
He added that the House will conduct a review of its workplace policies and "explore other means to ensure that people respected and safe in the workplace."
In the statement, released Wednesday morning, Saiki also said Souki's loss to the House is "regrettable."
"As a legislator, Rep. Souki always put his constituents first," he said. "Maui will lose an able and courageous advocate."
Souki's resignation comes amid a nationwide #MeToo movement, meant to highlight sexual harassment and abuse and urge victims to come forward.
Women lawmakers here in Hawaii hope stories like this empower others to speak out sooner.
"This was an older allegation, so I'm hoping more people can actually speak out when it actually happens," said House Minority Leader Andria Tupola.
"It is something that happens often. It's something as a legislator I've tried to confront," said State Rep. Beth Fukumoto, D-Mililani, Mililani Mauka.
When it comes to the legislature, Fukumoto believes changing the way these types of complaints are reported will help ease fears of retaliation.
"It shouldn't be that it only goes through the Speaker. I think there need to be a lot of different avenues," Fukumoto said.
In a statement Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Doug Chin said he applauded Wong for her "willingness to take a stand against sexual harassment, even in the face of immense opposition and adversity."
He continued, "Rachael and I worked together for two years, and I deeply respect her courage and integrity. Her actions will help empower more women in Hawaii to feel safe enough to speak out and let their voices be heard."
Meanwhile, state Rep. Kaniela Ing, who recently made headlines after calling the late U.S. Sen Daniel Inouye an "accused serial rapist" and equating him with Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, said in a statement that Souki "has been one of our state's most influential politicians and his stepping down tells powerful men everywhere that 'you cannot get away with this.'"