Years before Roy Amemiya was Honolulu’s managing director and before he was accused of a federal crime, he was one of three city officials who helped expose a serious case of corruption. 

It was 1997, and then-city finance director Amemiya and his colleagues suspected that something was amiss with some city housing contracts, the Honolulu Advertiser reported. So they told the police. Their concerns turned out to be valid, and a city housing official was convicted of theft, money laundering and forgery for running a bid-rigging scheme.

The incident, which came to be known as the Ewa Villages scandal, was a black eye for the city and Amemiya’s boss at the time, Mayor Jeremy Harris. It was later used against the mayor in that year’s election. 

But for Amemiya, it was just the right thing to do, and it’s one of several incidents with a common theme: Even though Amemiya was a political appointee, serving at the pleasure of the mayor, he consistently demonstrated a willingness to push back against actions that he felt were wrong.

He had the courage of his convictions, there’s no question about that,” said retired city managing director Robert Fishman, who worked with Amemiya two decades ago. “He’s the kind of person you want to have in those jobs.” 

photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Roy Amemiya has pleaded not guilty to a federal conspiracy charge. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Amemiya’s years of government service haven’t gone without criticism, but by and large, he has maintained the respect of his peers. That’s what made his indictment in January all the more shocking to those who know him. 

Federal prosecutors say Amemiya engaged in a conspiracy to circumvent the Honolulu City Council to grant a $250,000 severance to former police chief Louis Kealoha – a deeply unpopular decision considering Kealoha was under federal investigation for corruption at the time. 

Amemiya was indicted alongside ex-city attorney Donna Leong and former police commission chairman Max Sword. They have all pleaded not guilty.

The conspiracy charge Amemiya faces runs counter to his decades-long record as a banker, nonprofit executive and senior city official, according to interviews with his former colleagues and newspaper accounts from throughout his career. 

Even former Honolulu City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson, who vehemently opposed the decision to grant Kealoha a severance, said the council held Amemiya in high regard. 

“I did have a great professional working relationship with him,” Anderson said. “Professionally, I always found him to be fair.”  

Amemiya’s attorney Lyle Hosoda has filed a motion to dismiss his client’s indictment. A hearing on Hosoda’s motion is scheduled for March 24. 

“Roy Amemiya’s entire life has been anchored in the values of hard work, honesty, and integrity,” Hosoda said in a statement. “He entered public service to make a difference in our community, so it has been disheartening for him and his close-knit family to have his good name maligned by this indictment.”

‘A Soft-Spoken Lifelong Banker’

Amemiya, 66, grew up in Whitmore Village surrounded by pineapple fields. One of five children, he was raised in a family that would earn a reputation for public service.

His sister, Corrine Watanabe, was a judge on the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals and served as Hawaii’s first female attorney general from 1985 to 1987. His other sister, Jan Iwase, is a longtime educator and wife of former state Sen. Randall Iwase.

Ron Amemiya, Roy’s uncle, also was attorney general in the 1970s. Ron’s son, Keith Amemiya, the longtime director of the Hawaii High School Athletics Association, ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2020 and is now running for lieutenant governor

Roy Amemiya graduated from Leilehua High School in Wahiawa in 1973, studied industrial management and computer science at Purdue University and earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of Hawaii. 

In 1977, he began working as a legislative assistant for then-Sen. Donald Ching, a family friend, and later took a job at Bank of Hawaii, where Ching also worked, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. 

Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya and right Jesse Broder Van Dyke before press conference about failed bid on the Hilo Hattie property. 28 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Roy Amemiya built a solid reputation as a bank executive, nonprofit leader and city manager. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

He rose through the ranks quickly and was the bank’s vice president by age 31, the paper reported. 

Ten years later, he was tapped by Harris to lead the city’s finance department where he reportedly made a positive impression. 

“Members of the Council majority credit Amemiya – a soft-spoken lifelong banker – with restoring respect, civility and confidence to the budget process,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported in a profile in April 2000. 

Amemiya also took a stand when he felt it was necessary.

In 1998, the city’s budget director Malcolm Tom was accused of trying to pressure property assessors to inflate appraisals to boost city revenue, according to the Star-Bulletin. Assessors said Amemiya held firm and fended Tom off, the paper reported. Tom did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2000, Amemiya chastised a fellow cabinet member for allowing a company to do work for the city without a signed contract, The Associated Press reported at the time. 

“Instructing firms to proceed without executed contracts is a practice that should not be tolerated,” Amemiya wrote in a memo to the director of design and construction. “Please take corrective measures to eliminate this practice immediately.”

Amemiya resigned from his city post in December 2000. Upon his departure, city hall insiders said Amemiya was well liked because he wasn’t afraid to stand up to the mayor, managing director and deputy manager director, according to the news agency.

“The sources said Amemiya complained about high levels of secrecy in the Harris administration and about being overruled by superiors when he refused to approve expensive change orders on city construction projects,” the AP said. 

Throughout his career, Amemiya has been involved in local politics, but never as a candidate. 

He is not a showboat,” Fishman said. 

Instead, Amemiya was the campaign treasurer for his brother-in-law in Iwase’s bids for City Council and the Legislature. He also served as campaign chair for mayoral candidate Duke Bainum in his unsuccessful 2004 race against Mufi Hannemann.

After leaving city service in 2000, he returned to banking and became vice president of business and consumer lending at City Bank, which later merged with Central Pacific Bank.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell walks out before presser discussing where his administration is going to find the $44 million tor rail in their plan,
Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he chose Amemiya, far right, to be his managing director for his fiscal know-how and understanding of politics. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

He worked there for nearly a decade and became a senior vice president before leaving in 2010 for Olelo Community Media, a nonprofit public access provider. He was named CEO of Olelo in 2011. 

In 2014, then-Mayor Kirk Caldwell selected Amemiya to be his second in command. Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser at the time that he chose Amemiya because he knew the city’s government and budget well and “he understands politics.” 

Some of the administration’s decisions, carried out by Amemiya, attracted criticism.

As managing director, Amemiya defended Caldwell’s controversial practice of “compassionate disruption” – the so-called sweeping of homeless encampments that critics said were punitive and counterproductive.

And in 2015, Amemiya refused to renew a contract for ethics investigator Leitha DeCaires, a move that was perceived by many as part of a larger effort to stifle ethics investigations.

DeCaires was the Honolulu Ethics Commission’s lead investigator looking into what would become the Kealoha mailbox scandal. At the time, Leong defended the decision, saying that Amemiya had ordered all city directors to cease the use of personal services contracts, not just ethics, Hawaii News Now reported.

Amemiya also butted heads with former Honolulu medical examiner Christopher Happy because of Happy’s supposed inability to keep up with his workload.

Former deputy police chief John McCarthy said this week that the city had concerns about Happy, including suspicions that he was doing drugs, and that Amemiya had asked HPD to look into the medical examiner. HPD’s intelligence unit tailed Happy for some time and came up empty, but the surveillance effort raised questions about potential impropriety by HPD.

In July 2020, the city confirmed that Amemiya had received a subject letter related to the federal investigation into the Kealohas. The letter indicated Amemiya could have information that may aid investigators but he wasn’t a suspect. He stayed on as managing director. 

After Caldwell left office, Amemiya took a job in the office of City Council Budget Chairman Calvin Say so he could meet the 10 years of city service required for his retirement benefits. In July, it was revealed that Amemiya had received a target letter, suggesting the feds believed he had committed a crime. 

After the indictment was unsealed, Caldwell declared last month that he believes his accused appointees – Amemiya, Sword and Leong – are innocent but has otherwise refused to discuss the case. 

Still today, Say said he has no regrets about hiring Amemiya.

“I have the highest regards for Roy Amemiya as a man with integrity,” Say said.  

‘Nothing Criminal’ About Severance Payment, Attorney Says

Unlike for Leong and Sword, the federal indictment says little about Amemiya’s involvement in arranging the payment to Kealoha, who is now serving a federal prison sentence. It just states generally that Amemiya was one of three defendants who “arranged for Kealoha to retire with a payout.”

Hosoda has said his client wasn’t involved and didn’t even know the deal was being negotiated until after it was completed, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported last year.

The indictment describes how Kealoha’s $250,000 payment was classified by the city as smaller disbursements – $99,999, $99,999 and $50,002 – that were then bundled into one check. City law mandates that transfers exceeding $100,000 require City Council approval. But the indictment doesn’t specify who decided to break up the payments.

The indictment largely accuses Amemiya of participating in efforts to keep the deal quiet.

After the retirement agreement was finalized in January 2017, the indictment says Amemiya told acting HPD chief Cary Okimoto that he was “burning bridges” by publicly objecting to HPD funds being used for Kealoha’s severance.

A few months later, Amemiya allegedly called Okimoto to confirm that HPD officials wouldn’t bring up the topic of the Kealoha deal during a City Council budget hearing. According to the indictment, Amemiya said he wanted to make sure that the agreement “did not become a story.”

HPD Chief Kealoha Acting Mayor Roy Amemiya2. 20 dec 2016
Roy Amemiya’s attorney said his client, right, had nothing to do with negotiating the deal with former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha.  Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

After that call, an HPD deputy chief revised his planned statement to remove mention of Kealoha’s $250,000 deal, the indictment states. 

However, at the May 24, 2017, council meeting, the deputy chief was questioned about the retirement deal, and he revealed that the funds HPD was requesting from the council included a salary shortfall caused by Kealoha’s payout, according to the indictment. 

The next day, Amemiya met with HPD deputy chiefs and “expressed his displeasure” with that testimony, the indictment states. 

Anderson said it was wrong for city officials to keep council members in the dark about Kealoha’s retirement deal.

“I am absolutely saddened by the whole affair,” he said. “This whole situation could’ve been avoided if it came before the council.”

But to Colbert Matsumoto, who has known Amemiya for years, the case is “an unfortunate exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”

“Clearly there was no criminal intent involved,” said Matsumoto, chairman of the Tradewind Capital Group. “They were trying to address a very distressing and problematic situation where we had an out-of-control police chief who didn’t step aside despite the fact that it was becoming very clear he had abused his position.”

Besides, Matsumoto said, there is no evidence the defendants received any personal benefit from making the deal.

“If anyone was to benefit, it was the city,” he said.

Hosoda is trying to get the case against his client dismissed. In court filings, he argued there was “nothing criminal” about arranging a severance package for an outgoing employee. 

To help prove his client’s innocence, Hosoda is working to obtain copies of other severance agreements that did not go before the council for approval, including deals made with retired ethics commission director Chuck Totto and the former head of the rail project, Dan Grabauskas. 

We are trusting that justice will prevail,” Hosoda said. 

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