Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi apparently comes from a perspective of abundance. Speaking a year ago at Hawaii Pacific University’s spring commencement, Kenoi told graduates, “Love, aloha — it doesn’t cost any money and it doesn’t take any effort. And the most amazing part? The more you give, the more you get, and the more you give, the more you have … and you can never ever run out.”
It’s a sweet sentiment, but one that unfortunately seems to have carried over to the official purchasing card or pCard provided to Kenoi by the Hawaii County government. Unlike love or aloha, the more you get and the more you have from use of your pCard, the greater the scrutiny is likely to be for justifying what you’re buying with taxpayers’ money.
As West Hawaii Today recently disclosed in a series of stories, Kenoi has been misusing his pCard since 2009, making a total of more than $22,000 in unauthorized personal goods and services purchased in direct violation of county regulations.
Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi speaking at the Legislature earlier this year.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Though Kenoi, who besides being mayor is also an attorney, reimbursed the county for some of those expenses relatively soon after making them, he didn’t for others. Last week, he paid $7,500 in reimbursements for charges dating back to 2009, when the newspaper first began requesting copies of his pCard statements, which are public records under state law.
The county only made those long-requested records available, it should be noted, after West Hawaii Today finally got one of Kenoi’s monthly statements from another source, and wrote about several unauthorized expenditures, including a hefty tab at a hostess bar and a $1,200 surfboard.
The entire matter is now likely to be the subject of an investigation by state Attorney General Doug Chin’s office, at the request of the Hawaii County prosecutor.
And that’s not all: A Big Island resident filed a formal ethics complaint Monday with the county Board of Ethics, alleging Kenoi and county Finance Director Deanna Sako administrator violated the county ethics code over pCard use and asking that they both be fired.
Purchase cards are not a new idea; Hawaii state and county government offices have been using them since 2001. But use of them for business and government purposes has dramatically increased in Hawaii and nationwide in recent years, as procurement and finance offices seek to streamline the traditional purchasing process, which historically has been paper- and time-intensive, particularly for government agencies. Records provided to Civil Beat last year by the City and County of Honolulu, for instance, showed more than 600 employees had pCards.
We applaud the inclination to streamline. It makes particular sense for the purpose for which pCards are intended — small purchases, where a competitive bid process is not involved.
But such efficiencies can’t be had at the expense of meaningful, consistent oversight. The Big Island’s recently retired finance director reportedly warned Kenoi about improper use of his pCard in 2013, but took no further action. At minimum, Big Island taxpayers might have expected the finance director to make sure that a repeat offender was heeding warnings not to use the card for purposes specifically forbidden by county policies.
Concerns over pCard use are not new for government offices in Hawaii. A blistering 2010 report by the state Auditor’s Office criticized the pCard program, administered by the State Procurement Office, for a long list of deficiencies, from a lack of clear program goals to failure to audit the program to leaving training and oversight for card use to individual agencies and offices. It is unclear from the auditor’s website whether any corrective actions were taken in the wake of that audit, some findings of which the procurement office disputed.
Though most public employees take seriously their responsibilities with these cards, in an environment of lax or inconsistent oversight, the potential for misuse increases with every new pCard assigned. Unlike old purchasing processes where prior approval was required, pCard use is only examined after the purchase. As Kenoi demonstrated, absent a whistleblower, it’s possible in some cases to get away with flagrantly inappropriate purchases for years.
Kenoi’s case begs a question: Is there a moral or ethical distinction between a person who uses a stolen credit card to fraudulently purchase goods and the elected person who uses a government credit card reserved solely for official use for personal expenses instead?
This case represents an early test for Hawaii’s new attorney general, who was asked to take on the investigation by a county prosecutor understandably concerned about the appearance of impartiality with one county office investigating another. The attorney general and county prosecutor are discussing the parameters of the proposed investigation now.
Kenoi has been a charismatic and popular mayor with a larger-than-life personality; prior to this matter, he had been discussed as a potential candidate for higher office. Holding him accountable for any criminal violations likely will now be Chin’s responsibility, with the county ethics board and legislative auditor focused only on potential administrative violations.
As those investigations go forward, Kenoi would be well advised to resign. His public reputation might recover following an act of contrition that has meaning and lasting consequences. A failure to meet such a standard would rightly deepen character concerns that are already widespread among Big Island voters in the wake of the past two weeks’ explosive stories.
Unlike love and aloha, making amends does come with a cost. Kenoi’s willingness to pay it may determine whether he is ultimately afforded one of life’s other virtues: forgiveness.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.