A kiss, a hug lead to former House speaker’s downfall
Souki admits ‘inappropriate and unwelcome’ contact with several women
A Hawaii State Ethics Commission report says longtime Wailuku state Rep. Joe Souki admitted to touching and kissing more than one woman “in ways that were inappropriate and unwelcome,” though Souki said Wednesday that he had “absolutely no memory of ever acting inappropriately.”
The commission’s investigation report was released Wednesday and calls for Souki, 86, to step down by March 30, as well as pay a $5,000 administrative penalty and issue a public apology. Souki also cannot seek or accept any public office for at least two years.
The sexual harassment complaints against Souki were filed by Rachael Wong, the former head of the state Department of Human Services. Wong said Wednesday at a Honolulu news conference that the commission’s decision “has nothing to do with win-lose.”
“This is really not about two individuals,” Wong said. “This is not a Souki v. Wong type of incident. This is about Hawaii. This is about what we can be together. For me, I think the findings show the clear inappropriateness. . . . I can also speak to the fact that I’m in touch with several other women who have come forward in many different ways, and there are themes and experiences that we all share.”
Souki, who was first elected to the state House in 1982 and served twice as speaker, issued a statement Wednesday saying that he was “greatly saddened that something I did was misunderstood and believed to be inappropriate conduct.
“I apologize to the women that believe I treated them in any unwanted and inappropriate manner,” Souki said. “I can safely say to everyone who supported me in politics, or as a friend, I have always strived to conduct myself in a respectful manner befitting my office. I have never intentionally violated the trust, confidence and integrity placed on me by the people.”
Investigating the claims
According to the commission report, Souki admitted as facts that, while serving as speaker of the House, “he touched and kissed 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.’ “
The report adds that Souki admitted to making sexual comments, “including comments on the physical appearance of more than one woman, that were inappropriate and unwanted.”
Wong, who declined to comment during the investigation, released a statement Wednesday. She said that as department director, she often met with lawmakers to ask for support and funding. During a meeting with then House Speaker Souki in November 2015, she said Souki “made inappropriate comments specific to my physical appearance and an inappropriate request for physical contact beyond the traditional greetings we typically exchange in Hawaii.” Wong declined to share more details, but said she felt angry at first.
“It quickly shifted to, if this has happened to me as an appointed official . . . with a colleague sitting next to me, during work hours with doors open, my immediate concern was, what has happened throughout the years for other women here and any place of power?” Wong said.
Wong said it was “the first time in my professional career that I had experienced this type of inappropriate assertion of power where there was no path for recourse.” She said she stayed silent because she thought that coming forward would jeopardize funding for the department.
Wong said she left the department in August 2016 for unrelated reasons, but waited until she had been out of her position for at least one year before filing a complaint with the commission “to decrease the chance that my complaint would be politicized.”
Souki resigned as speaker in May, and Wong filed a complaint in the fall. She said she realized “that I needed to say something,” and was also inspired by the #MeToo movement that brought sexual misconduct allegations across the country to light.
Souki stated that he had “absolutely no memory of ever acting inappropriately with any women at any time, as a member of the House or in a private setting.”
During a separate news conference in Honolulu, he recalled that Wong had come to his office to say that she was resigning and to introduce him to the deputy director.
“I felt kind of sorry for her, so I got up and went to her, and I guess I must have put my arms around her — I don’t remember, usually I do that — and I kissed her cheek,” Souki said. “She didn’t ask for me to kiss. I went ahead because I felt sorry for her, and I did it sincerely.”
Souki said he’s kissed and shook hands with hundreds, maybe thousands of people who have come to his office, and he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong during his meeting with Wong. He added that it wasn’t his style to retaliate and that he wouldn’t have punished the department if Wong came forward.
In his written statement, Souki explained that he “made the difficult decision to avoid a media circus by stepping down without a public confrontation with my accusers.”
“I do not intend to have my wife and family agonize through public hearings before the Ethics Committee or elsewhere,” Souki said. “I do not want my colleagues in the Legislature to waste their valuable time in deciding where the truth lies, and what sanctions against me, if any, are appropriate. I will not force my accusers to be examined publicly by my attorney or others about what they perceived as my wrongful conduct.”
Ethics Commission Executive Director Dan Gluck said that once Wong came forward with harassment allegations, other complaints followed. As with any investigation, the commission interviews relevant witnesses and any relevant documents. Most cases result in settlement agreements as Souki’s did, “but no one is ever forced to enter into settlement agreements.”
“There’s always a full opportunity to have a full, open (contested case) hearing if someone feels that the evidence does not justify the charges,” Gluck said at a news conference with Wong.
Gluck could not disclose details from other complainants nor say how many there were. However, he said those claims were also investigated.
“This matter fully resolves any claims of sexual harassment against Speaker Emeritus Joe Souki,” Gluck said. “If there are other outstanding claims, the Ethics Commission would not take further action. As far as the commission is concerned, this is it. He’s resigning. He’s paying the fine to the general fund.”
When asked about Souki’s seemingly conflicting statements about what he remembers, Gluck said that “we have a signed settlement agreement from him, with his signature on it, admitting to certain conduct.”
“So I can’t control or speak to what he’s saying right now, only to what he’s agreed to in the settlement with the commission,” Gluck said.
Souki’s attorney, Michael Green, also was asked about Souki’s comments. Green said it’s a question of “what was inappropriate.”
“He doesn’t have any memory of doing anything inappropriate,” Green said. “But he’s agreed to accept responsibility for what they’ve accused him of.”
Praise for Wong, sadness for Souki
Gov. David Ige told The Maui News Wednesday afternoon that he wanted to thank the Ethics Commission “for a fair and thorough investigation of the complaint.”
“It was definitely courageous of Rachael Wong to file the complaint,” he said. “There really is zero tolerance for harassment in government, especially.”
Ige said Wong informed him of her intention to file a complaint against Souki with the commission.
“I agreed she should proceed,” he said. “She didn’t provide any details of the incident.”
South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing said Wong “deserves praise and admiration for bravely speaking out.”
“Her courage will empower other women to unleash their stories and hold to account those all who abuse their power,” he said.
Souki’s stepping down “tells powerful men everywhere that ‘you cannot get away with this,’ “ Ing said.
However, many Maui lawmakers thought Souki should be remembered for the good things he did for Maui County.
West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey said Souki supported funding for Maui Memorial Medical Center, airports, harbors and roads, including money to build the Lahaina bypass. He also was among the leaders who supported privatization of Maui Memorial and other Maui County hospitals.
“He was instrumental in all of that happening,” McKelvey said. “He was a key person. He would parlay all his political knowledge to make sure the huge projects came to fruition for Maui.”
While McKelvey thought it sad that Souki ended his career under a cloud, “I think at the end of the day he can begin a new life and be closer to his family.”
Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran called Souki “one of the most influential and probably best advocate for a lot of the good things that have happened on Maui.”
“I think the main takeaway is, I’m a little disappointed that, whether it was Rachael or anyone else, didn’t feel like they had any place to go in order to make their complaint,” Keith-Agaran said. “You would think that today that wouldn’t be the case, but obviously as we’ve seen, I think the entire country still has a long way to go . . . when it comes to dealing with sexual workplace harassment.”
Maui County Council members who responded to inquiries Wednesday also expressed sadness.
“It saddens me to learn about the Ethics Commission’s report and Speaker Emeritus Souki’s resignation,” Chairman Mike White said. “This incident aside, we cannot forget all the good that Mr. Souki has done for the community. He dedicated his life to bettering our community and pushed to make many important projects a reality. . . . He was Maui’s biggest advocate.”
Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura called it “a sad day” and said Souki “will be remembered by many as the powerful finance (committee) chair; the speaker.” Council Members Riki Hokama and Stacy Crivello declined to comment on the report because they didn’t know all the facts, but they also focused on Souki’s contributions.
“I think that one of the biggest things I’m going to miss from Joe, (is) having people understand that history and the factors that lead up to certain decisions,” Hokama said.
Hokama and Souki were both part of the Maui County delegation to the state Constitutional Convention in 1978, where many foundational decisions were made about Hawaii government, as well as the creation of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
“Joe understood Maui County’s philosophy, regarding taxation as well as home rule,” Hokama said. He “always respected the county’s philosophy, the county’s position regarding state legislation.”
Crivello said she’d “rather hold on to the good he had contributed to our community.”
“This is sad, that it doesn’t allow the exit to be graceful,” Crivello said. “I give my aloha to Mr. Souki and his family.”
Crivello noted that she hoped everyone can learn from the issues of harassment, complaints of which have become more prevalent.
Mayor Alan Arakawa could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
What about the ‘aloha kiss’?
Green said Wednesday that he thought Souki’s case was “just the beginning” of more women stepping forward — which he believed would have cultural repercussions.
“This may sound like being melodramatic to you folks, but I can actually see that culturally when people hug and they kiss on the cheek, there’s going to be a second thought about that, unless it’s a family member,” Green said during the news conference with Souki. “Because someone’s going to say, ‘You know what, he hugged me a little bit too close. That kiss on the cheek, you know, it wasn’t like an aloha kiss.’ “
But Wong said bringing up the “aloha kiss” was “not even relevant.” She said she initially chose not to respond to media inquiries “because things get played out in that way, and I think that’s where some of that came from.”
Gluck added that Souki “admitted that the behavior in this case went beyond the traditional aloha kiss.”
“That is an important part of local culture, and I don’t think this case should do anything to change that,” Gluck said. “We’re talking about conduct that goes beyond.”
While Green called #MeToo “a vital movement,” he took issue with how long it took for some women to come forward. Some of the incidents reportedly occurred between three to eight years ago, according to Souki’s statement. Green thought it was “an excuse” that fear of retaliation kept the women from speaking up.
Wong said many women who have contacted her are not in a position to go public. She added that if she had been a parent working multiple jobs and taking care of elderly family members, she “wouldn’t have had the time or the resources” to see the ethics complaint through.
“There’s many barriers to coming forward,” Wong said. “There’s the shame, there’s the judgment, there’s the ‘no make waves.’ But some of it’s logistics, and a lot of it is the fear, the fear of uncertainty of the future.”
Gluck said that people can file complaints with the commission confidentially and anonymously by phone, fax, letter or email. People also can file a complaint with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission or the Hawaii branch of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“People should feel comfortable and confident that when you file a complaint with us, that we will honor and respect that confidentiality,” Gluck said.
House Speaker Scott Saiki, meanwhile, has promised “a comprehensive review of our workplace policies.” Conflict of interest is also a concern, because, as the online news site Civil Beat pointed out in an article Wednesday, the speaker is in charge of harassment complaints in the House. Wong said the incident is an opportunity for workplaces, homes and schools to raise awareness about sexual harassment.
Next in line
With Souki’s departure, the Maui County Democratic Party will solicit people to nominate themselves or others for the Wailuku House seat vacancy. Members of the party will review the applicants and then submit three names to Ige, who’ll appoint a new representative for the remainder of Souki’s term in office.
“I will interview all of the finalists,” Ige told The Maui News. “I’ll just try and find the person who I think would best represent the community.”
Hokama suggested that since the legislative session is close to its end, he preferred Ige not fill the vacancy and allow the community to elect their representative in the upcoming elections in the fall. Hokama said he didn’t see much of an advantage of putting someone in Souki’s seat for what could be just several months.
“With the election coming up very shortly, I don’t see why they need to fill the vacancy,” Hokama said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, three Wailuku residents have checked out nomination papers for Souki’s 8th House District seat, which includes Wailuku, Waikapu, Waiehu, Waihee, Puuohala and Kahakuloa. They are: former Maui County Council Member Dain Kane, King Kamehameha III Elementary School teacher Justin Hughey and Maui County employee Mary Wagner, business continuity plan manager in information technology in the Department of Management.
Also expressing interest in the seat, via Facebook, was Lynn Araki-Regan, chief of staff for Mayor Arakawa.
Timothy Lara, chairman of the Maui County Democratic Party, said that once Souki actually resigns, the process to name a replacement will begin. The selection board has 21 days to submit at least three names to Lara, who will then forward those names to state Chairman Tim Vandaveer. Vandaveer will submit the names to Ige within three days.
“Although the official time clock doesn’t start until the vacancy, the party will begin to work based off the announcement of Souki stepping down,” Lara said. “In the next week, we will put out a call to Democrats in District 8 who would like to apply to be considered.”
Despite Souki’s downfall, McKelvey said good things are happening for Maui this legislative session.
One example is the House Finance Committee’s recent passage of an amended bill to provide more transient accommodations tax revenue to Neighbor Island counties. Under the measure, Maui County’s share would increase from $23.5 million to $38.3 million.
“That’s what the counties have been asking for,” McKelvey said, a straightforward, larger share of the hotel room tax, “without some goofy grant-in-aid.”
McKelvey said that while Souki’s loss will be felt by the Maui delegation, other members will do what they’ve done in the past.
“When the chips are down, we’ll all pull together,” he said. “We just have to do that again and pull together for Maui.”
* City Editor Brian Perry and Staff Writer Melissa Tanji contributed to this report.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rep. Joseph Souki career highlights
• 1982: Elected as Wailuku representative to House of Representatives, succeeded Tony Takitani.
• 1986: A member of group of lawmakers who unseated then Speaker Henry Peters.
• 1987-1992: House Finance Committee chairman.
• 1993-99: House Speaker.
• 2000-13: House Speaker emeritus.
• 2001-12: House Transportation Committee chairman.
• 2013-16: House Speaker (ousted by current Speaker Scott Saiki at the end of last year’s legislative session).
• Private sector career includes serving 16 years as executive director for Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., as an independent businessman and as a Realtor.