County plans to turn over Wong case to state AG
Maui police working to collect evidence, complete investigation
Mayor Michael Victorino said his administration plans to hand over the case of Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong to the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General.
Wong, 53, was placed on administrative leave Saturday after being arrested on physical abuse charges. Victorino said Sunday evening that Maui police were working to complete their investigation and interviews so they could turn over their reports to the attorney general’s office. He said he was hoping to get a response from the attorney general later this week.
“We would have to finish our investigation, provide that evidence to the AG’s office, then the AG can turn around and file the charges, whatever it might be,” Victorino said.
A spokesman for the attorney general was unable to comment on Sunday.
Wong, the county’s top civil lawyer, was arrested at 12:15 a.m. Saturday at a residence in Wailuku and charged with abuse of a household member, a misdemeanor, according to Maui County spokesman Chris Sugidono.
Maui police spokesman Lt. Gregg Okamoto said Saturday night that Wong had posted the $1,000 bail and been released. The case had been referred to the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, but to avoid any conflict of interest, the department decided to refer the case to the state attorney general, Victorino said. The department is also currently without a permanent director; former Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim was voted out by the County Council last month, and former Council Member Don Guzman has been nominated in his place.
Victorino said he was “not at liberty” to share any other details of what led to Wong’s arrest. He did confirm that the woman was Wong’s girlfriend and that she had been working in the Department of the Corporation Counsel when Victorino came into office. Victorino said he decided to transfer her to the Office of Management in an attempt to “eliminate or lessen any nepotism that may have been pre-existing.”
Wong served under Mayor Alan Arakawa and was appointed by Victorino to continue in his position. The council denied him in a close 5-4 vote on Feb. 5 but went on to confirm him after Council Member Tasha Kama changed her stance on Feb. 22.
For council members who opposed Wong, the arrest echoes concerns they had about him during the confirmation process.
“During the confirmation process, I brought up his aggression toward women in the workplace,” said Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, vice-chairwoman of the council. “It was something that I questioned him about. He dismissed the allegations, saying he was defending his honor. To me, it was just an excuse, because the testifier did come, and she did say that she wasn’t being aggressive.”
Rawlins-Fernandez was referring to testifier Autumn Ness, an executive assistant to former Council Member Elle Cochran. Ness said Wong stood over her and swore at her when she told him during a meeting that it sounded like he was defending Alexander & Baldwin. Wong said later during questioning that he has been “defensive and aggressive when my personal integrity is challenged.”
Rawlins-Fernandez said she wasn’t sure if the council could do anything. The county has workplace violence policies, “but as far as what goes on outside the workplace, I’m not exactly sure what the rules are on that,” she said. She added that there were “a lot of women out there that are standing with her, including me.”
“Mayor Victorino taking swift action is respectable, and I hope that he follows through on his no-tolerance statement that he made in his press release,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “It was International Women’s Day (on Friday). It’s Women’s Month, where we are trying to get the message out of ending violence against women, believing victims and ending inequality, and something like this happens.”
Council Member Mike Molina, chairman of the Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee that must vet the mayor’s appointments, said that “any type of abuse towards an adult or child is not acceptable.”
“If Mr. Wong is guilty of these charges, then I believe the mayor should do the right thing, which is basically ask for Mr. Wong’s resignation,” Molina said. “But we need to let the investigatory process go through.”
When asked if he had any regrets about voting for Wong, Molina said that “if an issue like this surfaced before the vote, I would not have supported Mr. Wong.” Molina said he had voted for Wong because of his experience and the support of his employees, who came out to testify in favor of their boss.
Council Member Alice Lee, who also voted for Wong, said that the arrest “came as a total shock.” Like Molina, she favored Wong because of the support of his deputies. When asked if she regretted her vote, Lee said that “with this new development, it’s hard to say.” She said she didn’t know all the facts of the case and could only speculate. However, she said regardless of whether Wong is found guilty or not, there will likely be a “cloud hanging over his head” that would make it difficult for him to continue as corporation counsel.
“If there’s going to be a lengthy investigation, I think it might be better for the mayor to put someone else in his place, because it’s going to be very time consuming, and we need to move on with the business of the county,” Lee said.
The mayor said he couldn’t comment on whether he planned to ask Wong to step down if found guilty.
“When everything is completed, I will bring forth a resolution,” he said. “I will start by saying I do not condone, I do not allow, nor will I ever allow this to happen in my administration. My deputies and deputy directors are held to a higher standard like all appointed officials. And so I believe once this investigation is over . . . I will base my decision solely on the fact that the people have to be protected and whoever is there has to be ready and willing to do what the people of Maui County really need.”
Council Chairwoman Kelly King and Presiding Officer Pro Tempore Tasha Kama could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.