Abigail Kawananakoa, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty and millionaire heiress to the James Campbell estate, filed a lawsuit Tuesday that could pose some problems for Honolulu’s $6 billion commuter rail line that’s slated to open in 2019.
Kawananakoa’s complaint stems from an ethics scandal involving Honolulu City Council members who failed to disclose conflicts of interest on key rail votes while being wined and dined by lobbyists whose employers would benefit from the project.
The heiress says there are at least 11 rail-related votes that could be invalidated under city law because council members didn’t disclose their conflicts of interest. But her attorneys have also identified at least 100 other measures — not all of them related to rail — that they contend could be nullified for similar reasons.
Abigail Kawananakoa hopes her lawsuit against the City & County of Honolulu will help restore public trust in local government.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Kawananakoa’s attorney, Bridget Morgan, says her client isn’t seeking to disrupt the rail project or any other developments, including those benefiting the James Campbell Co., a major developer in Kapolei, near the western terminus of the rail line.
Morgan said Kawananakoa only wants the City Council to ratify its previous decisions that have been tainted by ethical lapses. If it doesn’t, Morgan said, the city risks a judicial injunction to cease enforcement and funding of laws that the council previously passed.
“The lawsuit is not about rail. The lawsuit is about good government, ethical government, and restoring public trust in the system,” Morgan said during a press conference at the Bickerton Dang law office. “The process here was absolutely dirty. It was illegal and it needs to be cleaned up.”
Kawananakoa based much of her lawsuit on the ethics violations of Hawaii Rep. Romy Cachola and Nestor Garcia, two former City Council members who were hit with record fines by the Honolulu Ethics Commission for violating the city’s gift and disclosure laws.
Cachola claimed several of his former colleagues also may have cast improper votes, including current City Council members Ann Kobayashi and Ikaika Anderson, and former Council members Todd Apo and Donovan Dela Cruz, who is now a state senator.
There’s been a lot of conjecture regarding whether any City Council votes should be invalidated based on former members failing to disclose conflicts of interest. Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto has said he believes that the votes could be invalidated, but city attorneys disagree.
And it’s still not clear what implications invalidated votes or an injunction might have on the 11 measures listed in Kawananakoa’s lawsuit.
For instance, two of the rail ordinances that passed with questionable votes in 2012 are related to a prior year budget of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the agency overseeing the rail project. That money most likely has already been spent.
Other, more substantive city ordinances could have a greater influence on the project if they aren’t reapproved, including one that is the official selection of an elevated guideway as Honolulu’s “locally preferred alternative” for mass transit.
The entire lawsuit could also be chalked up to a paperwork problem that the City Council could clear up simply by recasting votes on questionable measures.
Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong did not respond to a request for comment on Kawananakoa’s lawsuit. Neither did officials with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office. City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, however, issued a statement saying he would consider holding new votes on the ordinances and resolutions that are now under scrutiny.
“As I have stated before, I intend to gauge the Council’s willingness to consider a re-vote of those disputed measures,” Martin said. “But it must also be said that the City’s attorneys have found no legal basis for a re-vote.”
Morgan said her client is willing to wait on the Council to make a decision, but that “we’re not willing to wait forever.”