Board of Ethics to respond to complaint in letter

Maui County Council Member Don Couch will need to wait a few days to learn the outcome of a Board of Ethics complaint against him.

The delay means that the announcement of the board’s action — if any — will be closer to the Nov. 8 general election. Couch is seeking a fourth two-year term to his South Maui residency seat, and he’s in a competitive race against challenger Kelly King.

On Wednesday, the board met behind closed doors to review a complaint by Haiku resident Sean Lester. His complaint stems from his questions about Couch and his wife’s ability to qualify as buyers for an affordable home in 2005 and later, in May 2007, to buy that home at Kai Makani Villas in Kihei for $389,088 — two months after purchasing a Waikapu Gardens market-priced home for $595,900 in March 2007.

Couch has explained that his job changed and his income increased from the time he and his wife signed an agreement to purchase the affordable home and when they actually bought it. Officials said that Couch’s income qualification was tied to the lower amount he was earning at the time he originally qualified for the home.

He also said that the unit had been released from the affordable housing umbrella by the developer when the purchase was made. However, the purchase was at the same price as an affordable unit.

Lester also has questioned the absence from Couch’s financial disclosures of rental income derived from the Waikapu home. Last week, Couch told The Maui News that he did report the rental income, but that it was included in his wife’s income because she collected the rent.

After a nearly two-hour closed executive session Wednesday at the county’s Kalana Pakui building, Deputy Corporation Counsel Gary Murai told The Maui News that Couch and Lester would be notified by letter in a few days of the outcome of the executive session.

Previously, Murai had said that the Ethics Board chairman would recommend whether to dismiss the complaint or schedule a hearing. Complaints may be dismissed if they don’t allege a violation of the county’s code of ethics or if they fall outside of the statute of limitations.

If the board determined that a hearing should be scheduled, it would likely be held at the board’s next meeting, Murai said.

The next meeting is set for Nov. 9, a day after the general election.

Couch has said that Lester’s complaint is “politically oriented,” but he is not blaming King for the matter.

Couch attended a council committee meeting Wednesday and did not appear before the Ethics Board.

In a text message to The Maui News, he said: “The commissioners have carried out their duty, and we will wait for the announcement of their decision.”

He called Lester’s complaint “nothing more than a Mainland-style, last-minute campaign attack by an individual who has ‘deeper issues’ with me.” Couch said that if Lester’s complaint were not political, then he could have called him to discuss the matter rather than filing a complaint.

Lester said that the board should have the ability to “dig back as far as possible to uncover any actions that are against the County Charter.”

“We’ll see what the outcome is,” Lester said of his complaint against Couch.

In his testimony to the board in open session, Lester said that even though the home purchases were years ago, the board still has standing over Couch’s last financial disclosure on March 13. In that document, Couch did not list income for the Waikapu property, he said.

Couch has said that the Waikapu property was sold in August at a big loss.

Lester asked the board to subpoena rent checks and bank statements to show the rental income. He said the renters for the home should be listed as sources of income.

Because Couch owned 50 percent of the Waikapu home, Lester said that half of the rental income is Couch’s and should be listed under his income as well.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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