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Sex harassment complaint filed against Souki

Wailuku state House Rep. Joe Souki speaks after receiving a Kupuna Advocate Award in July at the Grand Wailea resort. Souki, 84, is facing a sexual harassment complaint stemming from an incident three years ago. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Longtime Wailuku state representative and two-time House Speaker Joe Souki is facing a sexual harassment complaint from the former head of Hawaii’s Department of Human Services.

Rachael Wong confirmed Thursday that she filed the complaint last fall with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. She declined to detail the allegations because she did not want to impact the outcome of the ongoing investigation.

“It really is in respect to the process. I don’t want this to be politicized,” Wong said in phone call. “At this moment, it’s not appropriate for me to be speaking.”

Wong, however, provided a prepared, written statement about the complaint that was first reported Thursday by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“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,” Wong said. “It is an abuse of power and representative of where we are broken. And I know I am not the only one.”

Two-time House Speaker Joe Souki carries plate lunch meals in a Portuguese Association of Maui event in October. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Wong declined to say whether there were other women harassed by Souki and only offered that women have reached out to her since the Star-Advertiser article was published Thursday. She refused to say more when pressed for specifics about what other women told her.

When reached for comment, Souki said he needed to talk to his attorney before making a statement, but he acknowledged that he was aware of the complaint.

“I’m surprised it came out this early,” he said. “We haven’t even gone through the Ethics Commission yet.”

Souki’s attorney, Michael Green, said Wong misunderstood what happened three years ago when the 84-year-old state representative was speaker. Wong complained that Souki said she was “perky” during a meeting at his office and kissed her on the cheek afterward when she went to shake his hand.

Wong also complained about Souki adjusting his pants when he got up from his chair after the meeting, Green said.

“I think everyone is entitled to have justice including this woman, but how hard is it to write an email or note, saying I thought your conduct last week was offensive,” Green said in a phone call. “Now, if somebody rubs their hand on a body or brushed up against you or hugs you too tight, then you know what they’re doing.

“The conduct I can tell here is kissing on a cheek in front of a witness. It was never intended to ever be inappropriate.”

Green said another representative was with them during their meeting, but he could not recall the name. He also clarified that Souki was not saying Wong was perky.

“He doesn’t even know what she’s talking about,” Green said.

Wong, 46, filed her complaint more than a year after resigning as director of Human Services Department in August 2016. She was reportedly influenced by the #MeToo movement on social media and in the press, which exposed sexual misconduct by businessmen, celebrities and politicians.

“Over the last year, I’ve spoken with and learned from many local women who have had similar and worse experiences – and not one is in a place where she can publicly share her story,” she said. “This is what is significant.

“I finally reached a point where I could no longer not say or do anything, and this was motivated by two things: deep love for Hawaii and our shared community, and great sadness that this is our reality.”

Wong first discussed the incident involving Souki with Gov. David Ige after leaving her job with the state. She told him she was contemplating filing a complaint.

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

Green, who has filed a response to the complaint, said the #MeToo movement unfairly depicts Souki, who did not have an opportunity to defend himself. He added that hugging and kissing people goodbye happens every day in Hawaii.

“How many times a day do you see people hug people goodbye?” Green asked. “Well, people aren’t going to do it anymore.”

When asked if other women have accused Souki of sexual harassment, Green said: “I expect the doors to be wide open now. I wouldn’t be surprised.

“He’s been hugging people for 30 years,” Green said.

Daniel Gluck, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said all complaints are treated confidentially and could not even confirm or deny receiving a case. The commission doesn’t reveal any information about an investigation until there’s a public conclusion, he said.

“Anytime a complaint is filed, commission staff will investigate it thoroughly and if they believe there is a violation we’ll present the matter to the commission and recommend them to issue a charge,” Gluck said.

The commission may levy penalties of up to $1,000 per violation of the state’s ethics code, Gluck said. Last year, Ige signed into law the current penalty amount, which had been $500.

The commission also has the authority to refer matters to other state agencies and recommend discipline.

While Green said a hearing before the commission is scheduled for Feb. 27, Gluck noted that it is “generally pretty rare” for complaints to reach the contested case stage and are generally settled.

Souki, whose district spans Waihee, Waiehu, Wailuku and Kahakuloa, has served in the House since 1982. From 1987 to 1992, he was chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee. He was the speaker from 1993 to 1999 when he was forced out of the top job in a House reorganization.

In 2013, he reclaimed the post as speaker until the end of last year’s session when he was ousted in a takeover led by current Speaker Scott Saiki and urban Oahu Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

In a statement, Saiki said he would wait to see the findings and recommendations of the Ethics Commission before deciding on any action over the allegations.

The House of Representatives takes workplace harassment matters seriously, noting that last year it instituted mandatory, annual training to combat workplace harassment for all House members and permanent employees, he said. Before, the training had been held once every two years.

Souki is married and has two children.

Wong, also married, started a privately funded professional leadership development initiative called “One Shared Future” for public sector employees after leaving her government job.

“Hawaii is a very special, inclusive place where we are interconnected and can support each other,” she said. “Women (and anyone who has experienced harassment) are stronger standing up together, and there is now a conduit to report experiences of misuse of power, sexual abuse and other harassment in the state. This is our community, and we can collectively choose to – as the bumper stickers say – live with aloha. This is my hope for Hawaii.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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