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Opening arguments and witness testimony began Tuesday for the criminal trial of Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi in Hilo for his alleged misuse of his county issued credit card, also known as a pCard.
He faces four counts of theft — two of those are felony charges — three counts of tampering with government records and one count of making a false statement under oath.
Kenoi already admitted to and publicly apologized for using his pCard on personal items such as $1,200 for a surfboard and nearly $900 at a Honolulu hostess bar. A closer look at his statements revealed tens of thousands of dollars were also spent on travel, meals and drinks.
While he bought thousands of dollars worth of alcohol for his friends and family and tried to pass them off as county government functions, his attorney says that’s how Kenoi took care of business, and he was effective at doing it.
On Tuesday, the state attorney general’s case laid out in detail 15 transactions made from the mayor’s pCard from 2011 to 2014. Most of those were written off as county functions that largely involved alcoholic drinks.
The transactions were mainly at bars, restaurants and hotels here and on the mainland. The state says the mayor never turned in the receipts for those expenses, and classified them as miscellaneous expenses.
The state adds that through its own investigation, they found the receipts and learned that much of the purchases were for booze.
Deputy attorney general Michelle Puu showed the jury a receipt from Tommy Bahama: “If you look at what was purchased, again, alcohol. … You might notice Crown Royal with pineapple. Apparently, that’s popular among Mayor Kenoi’s taste.”
“That’s how business gets done. That’s how relationships are formed,” said the mayor’s attorney, Todd Eddins. “He’s allowed to do so, under county law, under county charter. That was his style of leadership. He was elected and he got to make the calls on this thing.”
The defense says Kenoi bought drinks for people as a way of doing business. Sometimes he bought bottles of liquor and beer for volunteers of an event to show his appreciation. Or he would go out for drinks with others late into the night and discuss business for the county.
“He goes out. He’s not going to let them pick up the tab. He’s the big boy from the island. He’s out there. He has entertainment expenses he can use,” Eddins argued.
The state also told jurors that it took several months — at times, more than two years — for the mayor to reimburse the expenses, and that the mayor did not pay them until news reporters started asking about them.
“When you reimburse funds after you’ve been caught making illegitimate purchases, that’s not an innocent mistake. That’s theft,” Puu said.
The defense countered by saying the mayor has many things he has to deal with and there was never any intention to steal from the county.
The indictment by the state attorney general also specifies three alleged incidents of tampering:
- In October 2011, he listed a $320 transaction at Hilo Yacht Club as an “Office Strategic Planning Luncheon.”
- In March 2013, he listed a $125 purchase at Longs Drugs as a “Poke Contest Volunteer Appreciation Event.”
- In June 2014, he listed a $200 transaction at Volcanoes House Restaurant as a “Luncheon with U.S. Conference of Mayors visitors.”
After opening statements, two witnesses testified for the state — one of them a former county finance director who was in charge of managing pCard purchases.
“Do you authorize the mayor’s purchase of liquor?” the prosecution asked Nancy Crawford, former Hawaii County finance director.
“No, I do not,” Crawford replied.
“Does any other department head authorize the mayor’s purchase of liquor?” the prosecution asked.
“No, sir,” Crawford said.
Kenoi’s nephew also took the stand.
Daniel Kailiawa wiped away tears as he said, “It’s been an emotional, challenging time lately. But I remember my uncle being there for me at some tough times in high school.”
More former, as well as current, county workers are scheduled to testify Wednesday.
Kenoi is the first mayor to stand trial on criminal charges since former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.
In the late 1970s, bribery charges were brought against Fasi after he was accused of awarding a lucrative contract in exchange for a major campaign contribution.
The trial lasted only two weeks, and ended after a key witness refused to testify.