Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is asking the City Council to formally replace Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who had been on leave since January 2019 pending a federal investigation.

In a letter to council members dated Monday, the mayor said he is appointing Acting Corporation Counsel Paul Aoki to hold the job permanently.

“Mr. Aoki has accepted my call to take on the challenging task,” the mayor wrote. “He has been a Deputy Corporation Counsel, the First Deputy Corporation Counsel, and Acting Corporation Counsel, is an experienced, capable and dedicated leader, and I would deeply appreciate your confirmation of his appointment.”

City Attorney Paul Aoki with left, Wendy Imamura leave US District Court.
Attorney Paul Aoki has been running the Corporation Counsel’s office. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Messages left with the mayor’s office and Leong’s attorney Lynn Panagakos were not returned on Tuesday. However, the mayor’s office shared a copy of Leong’s resignation letter dated July 13.

In it, she states she would retire effective Aug. 1.

“I had hoped to return to work to continue my service to the people of the City and to retire upon the expiration of your term,” she wrote. “Your recent actions make clear that this is no longer an option, and, thus, I submit this letter informing you of my retirement without waiver of my rights under the law with regard thereto.”

She did not specify what she meant by Caldwell’s “recent actions,” and Caldwell Communications Director Alexander Zannes did not respond to request for an explanation.

The city’s top civil attorney had been on paid leave since news broke that she received an FBI target letter, identifying her as someone about whom the feds have “substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong has been off the job for over a year and a half. Cory Lum/ Civil Beat

At the time, the mayor said the feds were reviewing Leong’s actions while investigating former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha and her husband, former Police Chief Louis Kealoha – both of whom have since been convicted of federal obstruction and conspiracy charges.

As of May 1, the city had Leong use her accrued vacation days as she transitioned to unpaid leave. The mayor’s office never explained the rationale for that transition.

Civil Beat asked Zannes last month if Leong had resigned, and he indicated that she had not – even though she had already submitted her resignation over a week prior.

“Donna Leong is currently on leave without pay and is using her accrued vacation leave,” Zannes said on July 23.

A draft resolution provided to council members provides no insight into the mayor’s decision to formally appoint Aoki now, over 18 months after Leong began her leave. But the move comes within weeks of Managing Director Roy Amemiya and former Honolulu Police Commission member Max Sword testifying before a grand jury that is investigating public corruption.

Councilman Ron Menor, who chairs the council’s executive matters and legal affairs committee, said he was pleased with the mayor’s appointment.

“I’m glad that the mayor’s administration is finally moving forward to officially select a new Corporation Counsel,” he said in a statement. “This decision is long overdue and will help to lift a legal cloud that has existed over the Department of the Corporation Counsel since Donna Leong went on leave.”

Aoki has worked in the Corporation Counsel’s office since 2013, according to a resume attached to the mayor’s letter. Previously, he worked for two private law firms and as a Hawaii public defender.

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