A 91-year-old Hawaiian princess’s $200 million fortune is at the center of an increasingly bitter legal fight between her former attorney and her longtime live-in girlfriend.
The money is the financial backbone of a foundation intended to benefit Native Hawaiian culture and causes after Princess Abigail Kawananakoa dies.
That legacy is now at risk, according to James Wright, who until recently had represented Kawananakoa for nearly two decades.
He says his former client has become the victim of a high-stakes money grab that could harm future funding for Native Hawaiian advancement on the islands.
Wright also says the princess, who recently had a stroke, is the victim of physical abuse by her partner, a situation that he’s already taken to the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office.
Wright currently controls Kawananakoa’s trust, which is worth an estimated $215 million. He was given control by the courts when the princess was hospitalized after suffering a stroke on June 18.
Since then Kawananakoa and her partner of more than 20 years, Veronica Gail Worth, have accused Wright of trying to take control of the estate for himself. They say they want the princess to once again have the power to spend her money as she wishes.
But Wright worries that Worth is manipulating Kawananakoa in an attempt take an even larger share of the princess’s inheritance, which comes largely from the Campbell Estate.
“One combatant has an interest in getting the money and one combatant doesn’t,” Wright said. “I’m not a beneficiary. I’m trying to get the money to go where the trust says it was intended to go.”
Worth declined to discuss the legal dispute Monday, and instead referred all questions to her attorney, Michael Rudy, who was unavailable for comment.
Kawananakoa’s attorney, Michael Lilly, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Worth and Kawananakoa have been together for more than 20 years. Worth has described herself as the princess’s private secretary, although it’s unclear what work she performs.
Kawananakoa pays Worth about $700,000 a year in an allowance. But Wright said she’s asked for more on several occasions.
In 2005, Wright said, Worth had an attorney demand that Kawananakoa provide her with $50,000 a month for the rest of Worth’s life, which the princess denied.
Just this year, Wright said, Worth again asked for more money, this time $26 million in James Campbell Co. stock as well as the deeds to the princess’s residence and two adjoining properties.
“There’s been a constant stream of demands for more money,” Wright said. “Up until now those demands were resisted.”
He said that when Kawananakoa denied Worth’s latest request, Worth moved out of their home and didn’t return until after the stroke. Wright said this on-again-off-again dynamic was part of an increasingly rocky relationship.
Wright said he has photographic evidence that Worth physically abused the princess and that he plans to share that with the courts as part of the battle over the trust.
He said the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office has also opened up its own inquiry at his request.
Worth has a criminal record. In 1985 she and her then-husband, Earl Harbin, were indicted by the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on two counts of attempted theft after officers said the couple tried to sell stolen electronics in exchange for money or drugs.
Both pleaded no contest to the charges; Harbin was sentenced to prison and Worth received probation with community service.
Harbin and Worth divorced around that time and he accused her from prison of taking part in a cocaine-smuggling ring, according to court records.
There’s a lot on the line in the legal wrangling.
Wright said that whatever money goes to Worth means it won’t go to further the princess’s desires to help Native Hawaiians through her Abigail K.K. Kawananakoa Foundation.
He said the foundation, which was incorporated in 2001 in Delaware for privacy purposes, will be propped up with whatever money is leftover in Kawananakoa’s estate after she dies and the money is divided among beneficiaries.
According the foundation’s incorporation documents, its purpose is to “maintain, support, preserve and foster the traditional Hawaiian culture in existence prior to 1778, including its art, language, music, religious practice and social history, while at the same time enabling Hawaiian people to function more effectively in the contemporary global community.”
1778 is the year English explorer Capt. James Cook first “discovered” the Hawaiian islands.
The foundation aims to benefit individuals who are descendants of the people who inhabited the islands prior to Cook’s arrival.
More specifically, the foundation seeks to provide cultural education to children, scholarships to college students, medical treatment to the uninsured and legal counsel to those who need it.
The foundation also plans to operate and maintain a Native Hawaiian museum in the state to protect art, language, relics, jewelry and other artifacts that are historically significant to the Kingdom of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people.
Wright said he wants the court to appoint an independent investigator to evaluate and ensure that Kawananakoa is not being subjected to any undue influence.
He also wants the courts to force an independent medical exam as part of the process.
“I cannot just pretend that I don’t know that she’s different,” Wright said. “I can’t pretend that her doctor hasn’t said what her doctor has said.”
While Kawananakoa’s medical records were filed under seal, documents submitted by Wright’s attorney, Frank Kanemitsu, in Hawaii Circuit Court state that Kawananakoa is “unable to meet essential requirements of physical health, safety, self-care, or financial matters, even with appropriate and reasonably available technological assistance.”
Wright said that if a determination is made that Kawananakoa is “competent” then it’s her right to do what she will with her money. He’ll simply walk away.
But until then he said he has a legal duty to care for Kawananakoa’s trust.
The total value of the trust is approximately $215 million. It’s made up of real property, stock in James Campbell Co., race horses, breeding facilities and training grounds, and life insurance.
Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa, 91, is a member of Hawaiian royalty and an heiress to the Campbell Estate.
Her parents were Lydia Liliuokalani Kawananakoa and William Jeremiah Ellerbrock. At the age of 6, she was legally adopted (through the Hawaiian tradition of hanai) by her grandmother, Princess Abigail Campbell Kawananakoa, whose father was James Campbell, a rich industrialist during the Kingdom of Hawaii period. Campbell was a carpenter who arrived as a young man in Lahaina aboard a whaling ship in 1850.
As Queen Liliuokalani’s great-grandniece, Abigail Kawananakoa is considered heir apparent should the Hawaiian monarchy ever be restored.
“If Hawaii were still a kingdom, she would be queen.” — OHA Trustee Peter Apo
“She is significant because she is a descendant of our last royal family, and she has always been supportive of Hawaiian concerns and rights,” said former Gov. John Waihee, the only person of Hawaiian ancestry to have been elected governor.
“If Hawaii were still a kingdom, she would be queen,” said Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Peter Apo. “So, her position within the Hawaiian community is very important, and what happens to her is very important. She has been rather generous with her nonprofit causes.”
Kawananakoa is a rancher, horse breeder and philanthropist who is perhaps best known for her work supporting Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States. Kawananakoa’s great-granduncle was King David Kalakaua, who built the palace in the late 19th century and who was married to Queen Kapiolani.
In 2006, the $2.3 billion Estate of James Campbell — by then, one of the major landowners in the state and a 106-year-old private land trust — began distributing its assets to more than 30 beneficiaries. Six heirs were slated to each receive $100 million or more when the trust terminated the following year.
The heirs included Kawananakoa, who the Honolulu Advertiser reported would receive the largest inheritance, or about one-eighth of the trust. After expenses, Kawananakoa’s stake was estimated to be about $250 million.
For many years, beginning in 1971, Kawananakoa was president of the Friends of Iolani Palace.
Kippen de Alba Chu, the palace’s executive director, said Kawananakoa has been paying the facility’s electric bills for years. Currently, the tab is around $14,000 a month because the historic palace must be air-conditioned at all times.
De Alba Chu said Kawananakoa continues to be a patron in other ways, for example, purchasing a table for $25,000 at a palace fundraiser last September. She also recently donated an artifact — a sword that belonged to Kalakaua.
“Her contributions have been immense,” he said, adding that she has also provided advice when the palace has been confronted by issues such as temporary takeovers by sovereignty groups.
But Kawananakoa has often made less favorable news.
As a burial site for Oahu chiefs, Iolani Palace is considered sacred ground. In an action that made for embarrassing headlines, in 1998 Kawananakoa caused an uproar when she sat on a royal throne while posing for Life magazine.
She also upset some but pleased others for her work to have Native Hawaiian artifacts protected in museums for educational and culture purposes rather than remain in caves.
In 2013, as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, Kawananakoa was granted a controversial request by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources: to be buried at Mauna Ala, the Royal Mausoleum, in Nuuanu.
“She has no right to be there,” Lela Hubbard, chairwoman of the advocacy group Na Koa Ikaika, insisted at the time. “She’s been masquerading as a princess and she is not, and people have not called her out on it. That’s the crux of the matter: She’s a fraud, and everybody else has gone along with it.”
But others see Kawananakoa as sincerely devoted to helping Native Hawaiians. They include Ainoa Naniole, an attorney and Kamehameha Schools graduate who credits her with putting him through law school.
Naniole came to know “Kekau,” as she is affectionately called by some, through his grandmother, who is a lifelong friend of Kawananakoa dating back to their days at Punahou School.
Naniole ticks off a list of what he says are Kawananakoa’s many contributions: support for Mauna Ala, Hawaiian studies, language revitalization, hula halau, the Merrie Monarch festival, the Bishop Museum and helping countless young Hawaiians from preschool through graduate school.
“If you look collectively at all the good that she has done in her community, it really paints a picture of something that is very dear to her heart, regardless of what you see in the newspapers,” he said. “And as a Native Hawaiian and someone who is privileged to get to know her real aloha for seeing Hawaiians try to make their lives better — it’s her kuleana, her realization that to whom much is given, much is expected — she really takes that to heart. And I’ll vouch for that any day.”
Politically, Kawananakoa is a Republican who has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to GOP candidates and groups for several decades, according to Open Secrets.
They include at the local level Pat Saiki, Charles Djou, Linda Lingle and the Hawaii Republican Party.
At the national level, her donations have gone to many more candidates and groups, including Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and several political action committees.
Kawananakoa has donated to John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio.
A few Democrats have also benefitted from Kawananakoa’s largesse, including Waihee and Colleen Hanabusa.
Kawananakoa is also not afraid to go to court for what she believes in.
Recent lawsuits on her behalf have been filed against leaders of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Honolulu City Council over votes for the rail project, the state over the hiring of the hearings officer in the Thirty Meter Telescope case and against developer Andy Anderson alleging a Haleiwa restaurant sewage dump.
Former state Sen. Clayton Hee, who Kawananakoa endorsed in an unsuccessful bid for Hawaii lieutenant governor in 2014, has known her for a long time.
“She has felt a responsibility to see that the conditions of Native Hawaiians are better,” he said. “Sometimes it causes some concern between factions of Native Hawaiians, and that has shown that she is accountable, she is courageous, and she has not been shy about using her resources.”
Hee is disappointed about the attention given to Kawananakoa’s current legal challenges.
“It’s unfortunate that this situation is being played out in the way it is in the media, because we are dealing with a private individual,” he said. “The princess, she’s not government. Yeah, I can understand if this was a government agency dealing with government resources.”
He added, “I am sure it will continue to be a news item.”