Immediately after Sen. Dan Inouye’s death in December 2012, the senator’s staff publicly announced he had written a letter to Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie urging him to “grant me my last wish” by appointing first-term Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa to succeed Inouye in the Senate.

The dramatic appearance of the letter, word of which was leaked to reporters within an hour of his death, grabbed headlines locally and was reported widely even as tributes to the late senator poured in from around the country.

The rapid dissemination of the letter, despite being marked “personal,” seemed intended to put the governor in a political straightjacket and force him to accede to the late senator’s posthumous political demand.

In the days following Inouye’s death, it would have appeared unseemly to question the unusual circumstances of the letter, and I haven’t located any published accounts that did so.

I’m told that even today, seven months after Inouye’s passing, questions about the letter are considered dangerously “radioactive” in political circles, and suggestions it deserves more scrutiny are being proactively dismissed by Hanabusa backers as coming from the conspiracy fringe.

But now that it has become a central building block of Hanabusa’s campaign to unseat Senator Brian Schatz in the 2014 Democratic primary, the letter can’t be considered off limits for further scrutiny.

One person who questions the authenticity of the letter is longtime University of Hawaii political scientist Manfred Henningsen.

In an essay he has circulated privately and unsuccessfully submitted for publication, Henningsen described the scene at the time of Inouye’s death as reminiscent of “a grand Shakespearean design … a plot involving the most powerful politician in recent Hawai’i history attempting to retain his influence beyond his death.”
Henningsen laid out a basic timeline.

On the morning of Monday, Dec. 17, Governor Abercrombie was making a public appearance at Pearl Harbor when his staff informed him of a “political emergency,” Henningsen wrote.

Returning to his office at the State Capitol before noon, the governor was met by retired First Hawaiian Bank CEO Walter Dods and Honolulu attorney Jeffrey Watanabe, both key players in Inouye’s inner circle. The two presented Abercrombie with a letter signed simply, “Dan,” and marked “personal.”

The letter contained just three paragraphs of exceedingly formal prose, imploring the governor to “grant my last wish.” The signature appears clear, bold, and steady.

And although seemingly improbable, the letter was dated that same day, Dec. 17.

Less than an hour after the letter was delivered, word arrived that Inouye had died at 5:01 p.m. in Washington, or 12:01 p.m. in Honolulu.

When Governor Abercrombie appeared at a previously scheduled press conference at 1 p.m. to discuss the release of his proposed state budget, reporters were already primed with questions about Inouye’s “personal” letter and his request to have Hanabusa anointed as his successor.

Henningsen, an old friend of the governor from the period when Abercrombie was earning a Ph.D. from UH, is not a believer in the narrative.

“How was it possible that the two prominent citizens could deliver a personal letter from the Senator to the Governor thirty minutes before his death?” Henningsen wonders. “Was the letter written in Washington or Honolulu? Was the letter actually signed by the Senator or was it a signature stamp put on the letter in the Senator’s office in Honolulu? Was the letter part of a grand Shakespearean cabal orchestrated by people in the inner circle of the Senator who were aware that his death would mean that they would all lose their power to the Governor?”

These are not frivolous questions, and on Tuesday I put them to Jennifer Sabas, Senator Inouye’s former chief of staff.

Inouye was “clear of mind, clear of thought,” Sabas said. “His issues were breathing issues, but he was totally able to say what he wanted to have done. He was very strong about wanting to make his views known to the governor.”

“I couldn’t dissuade him,” Sabas said.

Sabas said she was with Inouye the day before he died and took notes on what he wanted to say. She then drafted the letter and sent it electronically to their Honolulu office, where it was printed, machine-signed, and picked up by Dods and Watanabe.

Asked how a letter marked “private” became known to reporters so soon after the senator died, Sabas said simply, “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened after that.”

Sabas denied that Inouye’s commitment to back Hanabusa was at all tied to a deal to avoid a primary battle in last year’s Democratic primary that would have pitted Hanabusa against Mazie Hirono for the Senate seat opened up by the retirement of Dan Akaka.

Hirono stepped out first and announced her candidacy, while Hanabusa continued to explore a possible challenge. The fear at the time in Democratic Party circles was that a hard-fought primary would have benefited Republican challenger Linda Lingle, perhaps even allowing her to win the coveted Senate seat.

At the time, many believed Inouye, long a power broker who was alert to internal dynamics that might diminish the party’s overall prospects, helped broker a deal to keep Hanabusa out of the race and avoid a messy primary fight. It would be consistent with Inouye’s past practice to seal the deal with the promise of his future political support.

However, Sabas flatly denies that Inouye took part in any discussions, much less any political deal.

“I think Mazie surprised all of us by making the decision as quickly as she did,” Sabas said.

“We didn’t have anything to do in any way with Mazie’s decision to go, nor did we have any conversations with Colleen,” Sabas said flatly.

Finally, I asked Sabas whether Inouye’s final endorsement was unfairly being treated as something much more, a super endorsement carrying an assumption of privilege, perhaps.

“He wanted the governor to know who he thought should succeed him,” Sabas said. “We executed his wish but with the understanding it is the governor’s decision. In the end of the day, it was his choice.”

She paused.

“It is what it is,” she said.

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