East Hawaii News

Yagong Accuses Ethics Chairman of Conflict of Interest

September 12, 2012, 5:14 PM HST
* Updated September 13, 9:07 AM
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It was a reversal of roles today as a prominent politician accused of a conflict of interest accused the chairman of the county’s Ethics Board of being unethical.

County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong appeared before the board in response to a complaint that he had improper involvement in the activities of the county’s Election Division.

The complaint was made to the state’s chief election officer, Scott Nago. He in turn referred the matter to the Hawaii County Ethics Board, saying county ethics matters were outside of the jurisdiction of the state Office of Elections.

Nago’s letter dated Aug. 31 to Ethics Board Chairman John Dill did not specify what Yagong did, but said the complaint alleged that Yagong had a conflict because his daughter, Chelsea Yagong, is a candidate for the County Council District 1 seat currently held by her father.

Yagong, who finished third in the race for mayor in the recent primary election, knocking him out of the upcoming general election, has reportedly said that the complaint apparently refers to some work he and his staff did in the elections office in late August.

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Yagong told Hawaii News Now that he was helping to inventory election supply boxes for masking tape, checklists and other supplies in preparation for the Nov. 6 election. He maintained that he had no involvement with ballots, voting machines or other sensitive materials, which he said are kept in a locked basement storage room, an area he said he has never even visited.

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Nago’s letter to Dill noted that some media accounts had Yagong saying that he intended to take a more active role in his daughter’s election campaign. It also noted that state election laws prohibit relatives of a candidate from serving as an official in any precinct where votes would be cast in that race.

During today’s meeting, Dill asked Yagong about his role in his daughter’s campaign.

“I’m her father,” Yagong said, noting that he has helped her by putting up signs and going door-to-door.

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“I’m supporting her in any way I can,” he said. “Probably doing what any father would do.”

Yagong said he was surprised to see that the complaint mentioned precinct officials, as he has never sought to be one.

“That would not only be uncomfortable, but certainly not an appropriate thing to do,” he said.

Dill told Yagong that he had asked the county attorney assigned to the board to draft a resolution in preparation of an investigation of Yagong’s activities.

Yagong then asked Dill to specify his criteria.

“We don’t know, Mr. Yagong, and to get to the bottom of this we need to conduct an investigation,” Dill said. He said there was a “potential of a conflict of interest” in the matter, and the board needed to protect the integrity of elections.

“As you sit before us you’re not the average father, you happen to be the chairman of the County Council,” said board member Arne Henricks, adding that the board had to see if that in any way had an impact on the election function.

Yagong then said that he believed that Dill may have a conflict of interest himself. Yagong told the board that several years ago he was looking to hire someone for a county position and that Dill had called him on the phone to ask him to hire Dill’s brother.

Dill denied that he had solicited Yagong on his brother’s behalf.

At that point, County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, who was sitting next to Yagong, got involved in the discussion.

She recalled that Dill had recently sent a letter – using stationery with the Ethics Board letterhead — asking state election officials to remove her from her post and take control of the elections.

“You have an ethics problem,” Kawauchi told Dill.

Dill told Kawauchi that he made the request to state officials as a private citizen.

Henricks, a retired judge, told Kawauchi and Yagong that the proper approach for their accusations would be to file an affidavit that would be considered by the other members of the Ethics Board.

The discussion and accusations got increasingly heated, leading Dill to aggressively pound his gavel several times.

Yagong later told Big Island Now that the position was for a council aide and that he was wondering if Dill was looking for “payback” because his brother was not hired.

Board members eventually voted unanimously to table the issue until the next meeting.

In other matters, the board dismissed a complaint that Windward Planning Commission Chairman Zendo Kern had acted improperly when he voted on a matter involving a permit for the SPACE organization in lower Puna.

Before taking the vote, Kern declared that he was friends with SPACE founder Graham Ellis, and that Ellis had contributed to Kern’s successful campaign for a council seat. At that commission meeting Kern also said he had discussed the matter with county attorneys who told him it was appropriate for him to vote on the matter.

Board members also voted 4-1 to conduct an informal investigation into the practice of county employees attending union meetings during working hours at which candidates for office speak.

Henricks cast the lone dissenting vote, saying that he did not believe there was anyone to hold accountable for the activity.

He said the meetings are allowed under the employees’ collective bargaining agreement, and the union does not fall under the purview of the Ethics Board. The county also could not be at fault, he said, because it too is bound by the agreement which states that the union dictates the subjects of its meetings.

“It’s a jurisdictional thing,” Henricks said.

***Updated Sept. 13 to correct attribution of comments.***

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