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Former House Speaker Joseph Souki is being forced to resign after admitting that he sexually harassed numerous women over the years in his State Capitol office.
The resignation is one of several disciplinary actions ordered against Souki by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, which released the results of an investigation early Wednesday morning.
Multiple women, including former Department of Human Services Director Rachael Wong, filed ethics complaints against Souki alleging bad behavior.
Souki, 86, admits that “he touched and kissed more than one woman in ways that were inappropriate and unwelcome” in his State Capitol office while serving as speaker, the Ethics Commission wrote in its investigative findings.
“He admits that this physical contact exceeded the boundaries of the customary ‘aloha kiss,’” the Ethics Commission concluded. “Respondent Souki further admits that he made sexual comments, including comments on the physical appearance of more than one woman, that were inappropriate and unwanted.”
A representative from Maui, Souki has served in the state House for decades. He was House Speaker from 1993 to 1999 and 2013 to 2017, influencing thousands of pieces of legislation. He had the power to kill bills and appoint committee chairs.
“Because of his power as Speaker over legislation and budgeting questions, women were reticent to confront Respondent Souki or to file a complaint with the House of Representatives regarding his conduct,” the Ethics Commission wrote, adding that women felt they had “no choice but to remain silent in the face of Respondent Souki’s behavior.”
In fact, as speaker, Souki would have been the House official in charge of disciplining representatives for sexual misconduct. (See related story.)
The Ethics Commission found that Souki likely violated Hawaii’s Fair Treatment Law, and concluded he must resign from the House by March 30 and pay a $5,000 administrative fine. He must also issue a public apology and agree not to seek office for two years.
Souki told his colleagues about his pending resignation during the House majority caucus Tuesday, according to two representatives who were present. One female lawmaker stood up and thanked Souki for his service and for being a mentor to her and other legislators, the legislators said.
House Speaker Scott Saiki issued a press release saying the House will review its workplace policies and has already increased training for representatives and their staff.
“It is regrettable that a legislative career that spanned 36 years is ending in such a manner. As a legislator, Rep. Souki always put his constituents first. Maui will lose an able and courageous advocate,” Saiki wrote.
Souki’s attorney Michael Green said in a press conference Wednesday that Souki has “no memory of ever acting inappropriately with any women at any time.”
Green said Souki has agreed to resign and pay the fine to avoid a House investigation that would put his colleagues in a difficult position in an election year.
“The inappropriateness is in the eyes of the beholder,” Green told reporters. “He respects the women and their right to say whatever they want to say. It’s a question of whether it’s going to be a circus.”
Souki’s departure comes in the midst of a national discussion about sexual harassment and women’s rights. But while many state, local and federal politicians have been forced out in the fallout from the #MeToo movement, Souki is the first Hawaii politician to lose his job over harassment.
The fact that Souki acts inappropriately with women has long been an open secret at the Capitol. The legislator has for years made inappropriate comments about women to staffers, lobbyists and even journalists.
Former lobbyist Jenny Lee says a male lawmaker jokingly advised her to wear a miniskirt to Souki’s office when she started working at the Capitol a few years ago.
Civil Beat spoke with three women — one former staffer, one former lobbyist and one legislator — who did not file complaints with the Ethics Commission but said Souki kissed them on the lips. Civil Beat agreed not to identify them because they fear retaliation, even with Souki leaving office.
A female legislator told Civil Beat that Souki kissed and touched her without her consent. She says many of her colleagues don’t take Souki’s actions seriously.
“People still chalk it up to, ‘Well, he’s 80-something-years old and what’s the big deal?'” she says. “It’s not an excuse.”
A former staffer says that Souki made unwanted, sexualized comments about her appearance and kissed her multiple times.
“There’s the standard that everyone knows,” the former staffer says of Souki. “He aims for the lips. If you don’t turn your head he will kiss you on the lips and he will linger.”
She says he once put his hand up her skirt when she asked him to sign a bill. When she complained to her representative, she says she was told she should keep wearing the skirt if it meant Souki would sign the bills.
A former lobbyist also told Civil Beat that Souki kissed her on the lips without her consent.
“I eventually stopped going to his office … because I was just not comfortable,” she says.
The former lobbyist says she told an older female colleague about the sexual harassment and was told not to say anything about it because it’s “accepted reality” and would ruin her chances at the Legislature.
Even though the lobbyist no longer works in Hawaii, she is still afraid to speak out about sexual harassment.
“I’m here literally across the ocean and I’m still a little nervous about something coming back,” she says. “I don’t know how much of it is fear and I don’t know how much of it is self-preservation for your own career and well-being.”
She says silence about sexual harassment at the Hawaii Legislature is culturally ingrained.
“People know of things but they don’t speak out towards each other because bills will be held hostage,” she says. “It was more of every woman for herself type of attitude.”
Wong, 46, says the incident with Souki took place in 2015 in his office in the presence of a male colleague. She declined to say specifically what happened because she says doesn’t want the media coverage to focus on her.
But Wong is the only woman so far who has publicly acknowledged filing a complaint against Souki. Civil Beat reached out to two additional women who filed complaints but both declined to comment because they still fear retaliation.
Souki’s attorney Michael Green suggested to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the incident may have only been an “aloha kiss.”
Wong says she left Souki’s office after the incident feeling angry but unable to do anything.
“There really was no conduit for me to report anything,” she says. “The way our systems are set up, the Legislature holds power over other branches of government, over those who come to advocate for policies for their organizations, for funding.”
After her anger faded, Wong says she wondered, “If that happened to me with a male colleague sitting next to me … my immediate thought shifted to what about other women?”
She says she stopped meeting with Souki because she no longer felt safe. She spoke with other women who worked in government, but says they told her she had no recourse because lawmakers are only accountable to voters.
Wong waited to file her complaint for more than a year after she left government work. She filed in October, partly inspired by the #MeToo movement sweeping the country. She says she consulted with Gov. David Ige before she did so and the governor said he would support her.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser was first to report Wong’s ethics complaint against Souki on Feb. 1. The response was immediate.
“I received hundreds of emails, calls, texts, cards, hugs on the street sometimes from women I don’t even know,” Wong says. “Some just wrote, ‘Me too.'”
Not all the reaction has been positive — Wong says she feels stares as she walks down the street, and sometimes people get quiet when she joins a conversation.
“I can feel that people are uncomfortable around me,” she says.
But she hopes that the resolution of her complaint marks a change in Hawaii where women are less fearful of speaking out. She wants people to know that the Ethics Commission is a safe place to turn to. And that they’re not alone.
Rachael Wong is the founder of the One Shared Future initiative which has received support through the Omidyar Ohana Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation. Pierre Omidyar is the publisher of Honolulu Civil Beat.
Read the details of the ethics investigation’s conclusion below:
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Souki was 84 years old. He is 86. A previous version of this story incorrectly said Wong waited a year after leaving government service to report the misconduct because she was afraid of jeopardizing her job. She said she waited a year after leaving her job to file to avoid her complaint being politicized.