For the much of the past year, Civil Beat has been in the middle of a messy divorce and child custody battle.

A story about the concerns of one man over how the military handles family abuse complaints turned into something we’d never imagined — defending our reporter from the disgruntled dad’s efforts to force him to testify and turn over his reporting notes, emails and text messages, even information on conversations with editors.

As you might imagine, we vigorously resisted that effort. Even though Hawaii no longer has a shield law, courts have long recognized that journalists have a First Amendment right to do their jobs free from government interference, including getting dragged into court.

Last month a Family Court judge finally issued her written ruling in the case, dismissing every argument as unfounded, misleading or otherwise just lacking credibility. The judge’s ruling also clarifies what kind of information can be revealed in family court cases, which are often thought to be off-limits to the public.

Our story involved a guy named Jonathan Stremel, who incidentally is running for the state House in District 44 under the name Jonathan Lee.

Jon Stremel portrait.
A Family Court judge recently ruled against Jon Stremel in his efforts to overturn his divorce decree and punish his ex-wife’s attorney for providing a court ruling to Civil Beat. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

A few years ago, Stremel came to our then-military reporter with a story he thought Civil Beat would be interested in — how the military handles allegations of child abuse involving service members. His concerns were playing out during a contentious divorce and a bitter custody battle.

Stremel argued that his case was mishandled because military officials were biased against him because he was a male. Allegations of domestic violence by both husband and wife eventually were made.

Our then-reporter, Kevin Knodell — he’s now working for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser — produced a lengthy article deeply examining this case. You can read his 2,400-word story here. He spent hours talking and texting with Stremel and examining all the records Stremel gave him. He talked with military officials and private sector experts in abuse and child custody cases.

He also talked at length to Stremel’s wife’s attorney, David Hayakawa, who explained April Stremel’s side of things. Among other things, Hayakawa noted that there was no evidence of child abuse or domestic violence by April Stremel.

That was also the conclusion of Family Court Judge Elizabeth Paek-Harris who has been presiding over the dispute between the Stremels for years and issued the opinion last month that Jon Stremel was basically wrong in all his assertions.

“Mr. Stremel’s own exhibits … reflect that in 2018, a panel of military officials rejected (judge’s emphasis) Mr. Stremel’s allegations of abuse by Ms. Stremel,” the judge wrote.

Moreover, she pointed out, a different judge in the Family Court denied Jon Stremel’s request for an order of protection against his wife but instead granted an order of protection to April Stremel against Jon Stremel.

  • Behind the Story

This is important to point out because Jon Stremel continues to paint himself as a victim of domestic abuse in his House District 44 race. After our recent story on Stremel being allowed to run as Jonathan Lee we received a number of messages from his supporters who accused us of ignoring Stremel’s purported plight.

“I think it is really interesting that (Civil Beat) fails entirely to mention that Jonathan is the survivor of domestic violence (DV) by his ‘estranged civilian wife,'” one wrote. “I am disgusted that the author implies a survivor of DV is somehow the bad guy for using a different name.”

In August 2021, Paek-Harris granted the Stremels’ divorce and ordered them to share custody, rejecting all allegations of abuse and domestic violence. Knodell reported on that turn of events as well.

But Stremel was unhappy with that story because it included details he thought showed him in an unfavorable light.

Stremel had provided Knodell with a copy of the custody ruling and divorce decree issued by Paek-Harris, but he’d blacked out certain sections. Hayakawa sent Knodell a clean copy that showed the judge’s reasoning, including that there was no evidence of abuse.

Stremel filed a motion asking the court to sanction Hayakawa for giving Knodell an unredacted version of the document, which he argued was a Family Court document that Hayakawa shouldn’t have released.

By this time, Stremel had parted ways with his attorney and decided to handle matters himself. He served Knodell with a subpoena requiring him to appear at a hearing to testify about where he got the document and also bring all his notes, correspondence, discussions with editors over the stories and much more.

By that time, Knodell had gone to work for the Star-Advertiser and had no documents, notes or any other records. He no longer had his Civil Beat phone or laptop. So he literally had nothing to produce.

“Simply put, the Court will not allow threats of any kind to influence its decisions.” — Family Court Judge Elizabeth Paek-Harris

Civil Beat itself was never subpoenaed or named in the case, but it’s not right to let even former reporters shoulder the financial burden of defending themselves in a case like this. So we’ve been paying the bills on this one because we feel strongly that journalists should not be compelled to produce work product or testify in a court proceeding.

Paek-Harris agreed and quashed the subpoena. At the hearing, which was finally held in March, Hayakawa agreed he gave Knodell the divorce decree and custody order.

And in her written ruling last month denying Stremel’s motion for sanctions against Hayakawa, Paek-Harris also found that providing the court’s order in the divorce case was not a violation of any court rule, as Stremel contended.

“The Decision and Order is not a record that is required to be kept confidential by separate court order, or by statute, such as records in a child protection proceeding,” Paek-Harris said, adding that court rules govern access by the public to what’s in the court’s possession but don’t prevent attorneys from providing the documents to others.

Stremel had also asked the court to vacate the divorce decree, saying he had uncovered new information that would change the outcome. The judge disagreed on every point, including an assertion by Stremel that he’d just figured out that Paek-Harris and Hayakawa were friends because they’d worked at the same law firm years before. The judge noted she’d disclosed that to Stremel and his attorney at the start of the divorce case and both had said they had no problem with it.

Stremel contended in part that he’d only recently discovered a business relationship between Paek-Harris’ husband and Hayakawa and that the two had a close friendship because he’d seen on Instagram that Hayakawa “liked” a number of things posted by Paek-Harris’ husband.

“Mr. Hayakawa testified that he is ‘friends’ on social media with over 2,000 people, and he is known to click ‘like’ on every photo that comes across his screen,” Paek-Harris said in rejecting that argument. She also pointed out that Stremel attached 67 photos from social media that he said proved his point but in fact none of them showed either the judge or her husband with Hayakawa.

Stremel also did not produce any evidence of a business relationship, the judge said.

But Paek-Harris also was troubled by what she called Stremel’s attempts at “judge-shopping” — trying to get a different outcome in the divorce and custody case by threatening her to get a new judge who might rule differently, she said.

“Mr. Stremel attempted to improperly influence the Court at the hearing when he stated, ‘either you grant me the relief and we have another judge do another trial … or I can go to the media with all of this … I can go to the media with all of the pictures of your kids, and your family because you chose not to recuse yourself, you chose to put your family out there.’ Simply put, the Court will not allow threats of any kind to influence its decisions.”

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