Former House Speaker Joseph Souki has admitted to sexually harassing multiple women. But he told news media and colleagues this week that he’s never done anything inappropriate toward women in his life.
Souki agreed to resign and pay a fine Wednesday after several women, including former Department Human Services director Rachael Wong, filed ethics complaints alleging sexual misconduct. Wong said at least five women filed complaints against Souki — the Ethics Commission won’t confirm the exact number.
Souki signed a settlement with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission March 15 admitting that he touched and kissed multiple women inappropriately and made inappropriate comments.
But on Wednesday, Souki said he has no memory of ever acting inappropriately with any woman.
As to the incident involving Wong, the way Souki recalls it she came to his office with a male DHS deputy to announce her resignation.
“I felt kind of sorry for her so I got up and I went to her and I guess I must have put my arms around her, usually I do that, and I kissed her cheek,” he said, adding that he has done the same thing to thousands of women. “I felt sorry for her and I did it sincerely. Nothing like I was going to be stalking her, just that and leave.”
He added, “It was not a situation where she was going to be hurt if I had taken retaliation. She was retiring. It would not have been my style anyway. I’ve never done that.”
Wong has a different account, although she still won’t publicly provide details. She said the incident happened in November 2015, nearly a year before she left her job in August 2016. She declined again Wednesday to elaborate on what happened, saying only that it involved “inappropriate physical contact” and “inappropriate comments” in the presence of a male colleague.
Souki’s attorney Michael Green criticized the Ethics Commission’s process for adjudicating claims. He is concerned that he is not allowed to cross examine the accusers, and questions why it took so long for women to speak up.
“The problem is you don’t get a chance to confront your accusers,” Green said.
“I am sorry it happened this way, I wish it could end some other way.” — Rep. Joe Souki
Ethics Director Daniel Gluck said during a separate press conference with Wong Wednesday that the commission discussed its evidence with Souki and the longtime Maui lawmaker decided to settle instead of moving forward with a public hearing that would have involved the cross-examination of accusers.
Gluck said the commission’s process for investigating complaints involves interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents that back up the complaints.
Wong’s case included testimony from a male witness. Another complaint involved an audio recording of the incident.
Souki said he wanted to spare his wife, family, friends, colleagues and the women themselves from going through such a public event. He apologized for unintentionally hurting any women.
“I am sorry it happened this way, I wish it could end some other way,” he said. “I just want to proceed and move on with my life.”
Green suggested the sexual harassment allegations would have a chilling effect on Hawaii’s culture of kissing someone on the cheek as a casual greeting, commonly called an aloha kiss.
“That may be coming one day, that everything we are that makes us different from the mainland is going to change,” Green warned.
Gluck said it’s important to understand that Souki signed a statement admitting “conduct that goes beyond the aloha kiss.”
Wong said Wednesday that Green’s statement about the “aloha kiss” is not relevant. She hopes that her public statement empowers more women to come forward, and is collecting stories at a new website called MakeHawaiiSafe.com.
“Our culture often prevents us from speaking out when there is injustice, and we are taught not to put others to shame since we live in a small community,” she told reporters. “These are some of the very reasons many suffer in silence for years, and things stay the same. It is time for a new way of doing things in Hawaii, and I am hopeful because of what is possible.”
Green agreed the settlement could prompt more women to make public allegations against other men, but had a different take. “I can’t imagine after this story goes out how many people in various places are not going to sleep well tonight.”
Democratic representatives first heard the news Tuesday when Souki, a former speaker from Maui who has served for more than three decades, made an announcement during the House majority caucus that he was leaving.
Rep. Cindy Evans stood up and thanked him for being a teacher and mentor to her for 16 years.
She told Civil Beat she did so because it was clear that it was the end of his career. Evans characterized the attitude among her colleagues Wednesday as one of “avoidance.”
“Today is not a day of anyone wanting to talk about it,” she says.
No one mentioned Rep. Joe Souki’s resignation during a House floor session Wednesday. The Women’s Caucus did not issue a statement, although Sen. Laura Thielen issued an individual statement saying that sexual harassment is not acceptable.
House Speaker Scott Saiki issued a press release early Wednesday morning praising Souki for his political career and calling him an “able and courageous advocate.”
Other members of the Legislature focused more on the women who made the allegations. Sen. Donna Mercado Kim acknowledged Souki’s resignation during a Civil Beat event Wednesday and said it’s important for victims to know they have a place to turn.
Rep. Kaniela Ing, a fellow Maui Democrat who is running for Congress, issued a press release saying, “Joe Souki has been one of our state’s most influential politicians for decades, and his stepping down tells powerful men everywhere that ‘you cannot get away with this.’”
Rep. Joy San Buenaventura posted a Facebook status praising Rachael Wong, the former Department of Human Services director who is the only woman to publicly acknowledge filing a complaint against Souki.
“She and others should be supported,” San Buenaventura wrote.
The lack of detail about the incidents and conflicting statements from Souki leaves an atmosphere where some don’t know what to think. To Evans, “it’s really, really unclear” what happened.
“I’m not sure it was an admission as much as the only way to move on is to agree to the findings,” she said.
Souki, who has been absent from House floor sessions in recent weeks, is required to leave the Legislature by March 30.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Souki is 84 years old. He is 86.