Ethics Board Deadlocks on Yagong Investigation
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by Dave Smith
The county Board of Ethics today deadlocked on whether it should pursue an investigation into whether County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong may have been inappropriately involved in the operations of the county Elections Division.
Today’s meeting was decidedly more civil than when the board met last month. At that meeting on Sept. 12, Yagong accused Ethics Board Chairman John Dill of violating ethics himself. That accusation resulted in a shouting match between Yagong and Dill.
The issue stems from an Aug. 31 letter sent to the board by state Chief Election Officer Scott Nago. The letter said state election officials had received a complaint that Yagong may have a conflict of interest because his daughter, Chelsea Yagong, is a candidate for the District 1 council seat being vacated by her father.
Nago’s letter did not contain specific allegations. However, Yagong last month told board members that he had helped county election workers inventory election supply boxes in preparation of the Nov. 6 general election. Yagong maintained he had no involvement with ballots or other sensitive materials.
Yagong told board members that separately he also worked on his daughter’s campaign, putting up signs and talking to prospective voters door-to-door.
The proceedings last month took an abrupt turn after Dill said he had requested that county attorneys draft a resolution in preparation of an investigation into Yagong’s activities. Yagong then accused Dill of an ethical violation, saying Dill had previously requested that Yagong hire Dill’s brother for a council aide position, which Dill denied.
Yagong later told Big Island Now that he suspected Dill was looking for “payback” because his brother was not hired for the post.
Renee Schoen, the county attorney assigned to the Ethics Board, told Yagong at last month’s meeting that the proper approach to accusing Dill of unethical behavior would be to file an affidavit that would be taken up by the other board members.
At today’s meeting, Dill turned the meeting over to newly designated Vice Chairman Bernard Balsis, saying he was doing so for the sake of “fairness.” He also said he was again denying Yagong’s allegations from last month and believed he could be fair and impartial on the question of Yagong’s election activities.
Balsis then asked the two other members of the board present whether they had questions or comments on Dill’s participation, and after hearing none Dill said he would participate in the proceedings.
Balsis also noted that Yagong had not filed an affidavit accusing Dill of impropriety.
Board members then briefly questioned Yagong about his role in the election process, to which he responded that in addition to hiring County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, with the support of the council’s majority, he also helped schedule meeting with Elections Division staff and precinct officials in preparation for the November election.
Yagong noted that he has no involvement in the hiring of election poll workers, which is handled by the state. Board members also noted that the state has recently taken over from the county most of the election responsibilities for the upcoming election.
Board member Arne Henricks then said he believed Yagong was sufficiently removed from the election process, particularly in District 1 where his daughter is running.
However, several board members still had questions about the state’s upcoming election role and how it affected Yagong.
“I assure this body at this time that whatever the plan is worked out between the state and the county clerk’s office it has nothing to do with the chairman’s office,” Yagong said.
A motion was then made to conduct an informal investigation of Yagong’s activities “to keep the process public.”
However, while Dill and board member Glen Hisashima voted in favor of the motion, Henricks and Balsis voted against it. Because board member David Heaukulani was absent, the motion failed on the 2-2 tie.
Yagong told Big Island Now he was pleased the matter had been resolved.
“I’ve always thought from the beginning that it was a distraction,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over.”
In other matters, the board took up a petition from Big Island blogger Tiffany Edwards Hunt alleging that Kawauchi had violated the county ethics code by showing preferential treatment to some members of the media and by not acting in a “courteous, fair and impartial manner.”
Edwards Hunt told board members that Kawauchi had reneged on a promise to meet with her early on primary election day. She said she also felt the clerk was “stonewalling” her attempts to report on election matters.
Dill recused himself from the discussion because he had previously written a letter to the state Office of Elections saying he believed Kawauchi should be removed from her post.
At the September meeting, Kawauchi also accused Dill of unethical behavior, citing as evidence the letter she said he wrote under Board of Ethics letterhead.
Dill has maintained he wrote the letter as a private citizen, and today Schoen said she had obtained a copy of the July 25 letter from the state and confirmed that it was not written on Board of Ethics stationery.
The board eventually voted to obtain more information from Kawauchi and take up the matter again at its next meeting.
The board also voted to postpone consideration of a petition alleging that county employees attending union meetings where they meet with candidates for political office is a violation of the ethics code. Members said they needed additional time to study information obtained from the state on similar case.