On Feb. 2, 2021, the Hawaii State Senate issued an honorary certificate to Honolulu businesswoman Nickie Lum Davis for her “public service and outstanding contributions to her community.”

At the time, the proclamation seemed noncontroversial.

It was signed by 21 of 25 senators, including Senate President Ron Kouchi, and detailed a list of Davis’ many accomplishments, from her work with a local nonprofit that provided services to victims of domestic violence to her leadership positions with pro-Israel groups that raised money for school and food programs in that country.

It even recounted a story about how Davis played a “pertinent role” in securing the release of an American hostage in China in 2017.

What the certificate didn’t say, however, was that Davis had pleaded guilty in August 2020 to federal charges and was awaiting sentencing in a complex criminal case. The U.S. Justice Department has accused her and others of secretly lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests.

That omission has caught a handful of senators by surprise.

Senate floor session.
The Hawaii State Senate issued an honorary certificate to Nickie Lum Davis shortly after she pleaded guilty to a federal crime. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

They say they didn’t know what they were signing at the time. Even more concerning, they say, is that Davis has since submitted the certificate to a federal judge in an attempt to bolster her character and avoid prison time.

“The bottom line is I’m embarrassed,” said state Sen. Karl Rhoads, who’s one of the nearly two dozen lawmakers who signed on to the legislative certificate.

“I’ve never felt the need to investigate one of these before to see if I should sign it or not.”

The certificate was sponsored by Sen. Kurt Fevella, the lone Republican in the chamber, and it was issued just two weeks after Davis was unsuccessful in securing a pardon from former President Donald Trump on his last day in office.

Davis has strong ties to the GOP and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Republican candidates over the years.

Fevella says he knew of Davis’ guilty plea, but dismissed any notion that he was helping her as a political favor. Instead, he said he wanted to honor Davis for the work she’s done for the community, both in Hawaii and elsewhere, and that he didn’t feel that a single mistake should define her entire life or career.

“Why should that wash away all of her goodness?” he asked.

Common Practice

Honorary certificates are different than bills or resolutions that must be voted on to carry the weight of law or express the intent of the legislature.

A senator can issue a certificate to anyone they choose so long as one of their colleagues hasn’t already done so and they often recognize a wide range of individuals and institutions, whether it’s a high school valedictorian from their district or a newly minted shabu shabu restaurant.

Senators sign on to hundreds of certificates each year, usually as a courtesy to their colleagues.

Chair Judiciary Karl Rhoads during mail in ballot hearing held in room 016 at the Capitol.
State Sen. Karl Rhoads was surprised to learn that he had signed on to an honorary certificate for Davis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The lawmakers interviewed by Civil Beat said rarely, if ever, do they pay much attention to what’s actually written on the certificates unless they’re the one giving it out.

That’s why Rhoads said he was taken aback when he learned that Davis’ certificate appears to have been “weaponized” as an aid to her legal defense.

He’s not the only one who expressed surprise.

Clarence Nishihara, who announced this year that he was retiring from the senate, said he also unwittingly signed on to the certificate. He said the fact that he did, though, is not unexpected given just how ubiquitous the honors have become.

When a fellow senator asks for his signature, he said, it’s almost always given.

“My guess is that most of us probably don’t know who these people are,” Nishihara said. “Usually we sign the certificate sight unseen whatever it says.”

Davis was charged in 2020 for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires individuals to disclose that they are working on behalf of foreign interests when trying to influence U.S. policy.

According to the DOJ, Davis was paid millions of dollars for trying to convince the Trump administration to drop a criminal investigation into Jho Low, a fugitive Malaysian businessman who’s accused of stealing billions of dollars from his country’s state-run investment firm.

Among Davis’ co-conspirators were Elliot Broidy, a prominent Trump fundraiser, and Prakazrel Michel, or “Pras,” a rapper and founding member of the 1990s hip-hop group the Fugees.

The trio was also charged with secretly working with Chinese officials to try to extradite Guo Wengui, a billionaire Chinese dissident living in the U.S., back to China.

Their efforts ultimately failed.

Davis’ Hawaii-based attorney, William McCorriston, submitted Fevella’s certificate to U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi on Oct. 17 as part of an exhibit to a sentencing memo that sought to downplay his client’s involvement in the influence campaign while at the same time highlighting her good deeds.

That sentencing memo was originally filed under seal, but Kobayashi ordered its release in response to a motion filed by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

The senate certificate was attached to a letter from Melvin Masuda, a former law professor at Hawaii Pacific University who worked as a session aide in Fevella’s office.

Masusda was one of two dozen people to submit letters to Kobayashi on Davis’ behalf seeking leniency. Others included Cedric the Entertainer, Howard Friedman, former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and John Waihee IV, trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Senator Kurt Fevella speaks reservations before Espinda vote.
State Sen. Kurt Fevella says he didn’t honor Davis for political reasons. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In his letter, Masuda said he was close with Davis’ family and in particular her parents, who were major Democratic Party fundraisers in the 1990s and had been embroiled in their own high profile scandals involving making illegal campaign contributions to congressional candidates.

Masuda wrote that the prosecution against Davis was a “grave injustice” and that he was responsible for shepherding the honorary certificate — which he described as a resolution — through the state senate.

He told the judge that everyone who signed on was “made fully aware of the federal case involving Nickie.”

Masuda refused to talk to Civil Beat for this story, but both Rhoads and Nishihara said they did not recall hearing of Davis’ legal troubles before agreeing to sign the certificate.

McCorriston did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.

‘I Did It From The Heart’

Fevella said he couldn’t recall who specifically approached him about granting Davis an honorary certificate, but he did have a conversation with her beforehand that assured him that what he was doing was right.

He pointed out that, like him, Davis is Native Hawaiian and was deserving of a second chance despite her alleged crimes.

Similar to Rhoads and Nishihara, Fevella said he was unaware that Davis’ certificate was being used in her criminal case in an attempt to obtain leniency from the judge. He then pointed out that he has no control over what happens to the honorary placards once awarded.

“My intent was not to give her a get out of jail free card,” Fevella said. “My intent was to recognize a female Native Hawaiian and that was it. I did it from the heart.”

Whether the legislative certificate has any bearing on Davis’ case remains to be seen.

Her Oct. 27 sentencing hearing was vacated after her attorneys filed a motion seeking to withdraw her guilty plea due to concerns about her former defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, being under DOJ investigation at the same time he was negotiating her plea deal.

Hearings on that motion aren’t expected to take place until later this month.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have asked Kobyashi to sentence Davis to 30 months in prison for her part in the covert lobbying scheme.

They said that as part of her plea deal she’s also agreed to forfeit $3 million, an amount that’s been described by the government as the “minimum net proceeds of her offense,” although it’s alleged she was paid more than $10 million for her part in the foreign lobbying efforts.

Alexander Silvert, who’s a retired federal defender, said it’s common for defense attorneys to submit character reference letters and other honorariums to the court on behalf of their clients, but it’s hard to know how much sway those missives have, if at all, on a judge’s final sentencing decision.

In Davis’ case, Silvert said it’s likely Kobayashi will see the senate certificate for what it is and move forward without giving it much weight, especially given how frequently such honors are doled out.

“Judges are pretty smart and they’re pretty akamai to what these different things mean,” Silvert said. “The judge knows that these things are given out like candy.”

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