Amid Harassment Claims, Top Hawaii Lawmaker Resigns

by | March 23, 2018

By Kevin Dayton

Former House Speaker Joseph Souki has agreed to resign from office to resolve complaints from "several" women who allege they were the targets of his unwanted advances that included sexual comments, touching and kissing, according to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

Souki, a two-time speaker of the House who has been a powerful figure in Hawaii politics for decades, was first accused of inappropriate conduct by former Director of Human Services Rachael Wong, who filed allegations against him with the ethics commission last fall.

After the Star-Advertiser reported on that complaint, at least four other women came forward with similar allegations against Souki, Wong said in an interview.

According to a document made public by ethics commission staff today, Souki admitted that while serving as speaker of the House he "touched and kissed more than one woman in ways that were inappropriate and unwelcome" during meetings in his office.

"He admits that this physical contact exceeded the boundaries of the customary 'aloha kiss,' " according to the Resolution of Investigation document released by the ethics commission. "Respondent Souki further admits that he made sexual comments, including comments on the physical appearance of more than one women, that were inappropriate and unwanted."

As part of the agreement to resolve the case, Souki has agreed to resign from office no later than March 30, and to issue a public apology for his conduct. He is also required to pay a $5,000 administrative fine to the commission, and must agree not to seek public office again for two years.

Souki, 84, has not commented on the accusations against him, and has not attended floor sessions in the House since March 13. He was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Wong initially refused to describe the details of her complaint against Souki, but issued a statement Tuesday saying that "the incident with Representative Souki involved abuse of (his) positional power in the extreme.

"Although there was a male colleague present, he made inappropriate comments specific to my gender and physical appearance and inappropriate requests for physical contact beyond the traditional greetings we typically exchange in Hawaii," Wong wrote.

She declined to describe the incident in greater detail, and no information was available about the allegations from other women.

Souki's lawyer Michael Green said earlier this year that Wong's complaint stemmed from an incident when Souki was speaker, and Wong attended a meeting in Souki's office with another representative.

"She went to shake his hand, and he kissed her goodbye," Green said. "What she said was, they spoke, and he made some comment about being 'perky,' and I don't know what that means, and it was three years ago, but when she went to shake his hand goodbye, I think he kissed her on the cheek."

According to Green, Wong also alleged that when Souki got up from his chair after the meeting, "he adjusted his pants." Green described Wong's complaint as "crazy," and questioned why she did not report it or take action at the time.

Wong, who was Human Services director in 2015 and 2016, has said she did not immediately report the incident "due to the risk of retaliation against me, against the department, DHS, and against (the) executive branch." She did not discuss the matter with Gov. David Ige until after she resigned, and did not file a complaint until more than a year after she left DHS.

Still, Wong said in her statement that the incident "left me angry. It was the first time in my professional career that I had experienced this type of inappropriate assertion of power where there was no path for recourse. The risk of retaliation against me, my department, and the administration for refusing to comply or for reporting the incident was real and could derail good work in progress."

Wong has also said she was influenced by watching the #MeToo movement play out on social media and in the press, exposing sexual misconduct by businessmen, celebrities and politicians.

As DHS director, Wong oversaw more than 2,000 employees and a budget of more than $3 billion. After the incident, Wong said she was unable to fully do her job, which involved paying visits to and speaking with key people involved in government, including lawmakers.

The report on the ethics investigation specifically addresses delays in reporting the harassment incidents, concluding that "because of his power as Speaker over legislation and budgeting questions, women were reticent to confront Speaker Souki or file a complaint with the House of Representatives regarding his conduct."

According to the ethics report, "challenging then-Speaker Souki's conduct could have jeopardized her agency's budget and legislation, thereby impairing her advocacy efforts on behalf of Hawaii's children and families. She, like others, felt he had no choice but to remain silent in the face of Respondent Souki's behavior."

The ethics commission concluded that Souki's conduct likely violated the state's Fair Treatment Law, which prohibits lawmakers from using their official positions to obtain "unwarranted privileges" or treatment for the lawmakers or others, regardless of whether that treatment is favorable or unfavorable.

Souki, (D, Waihee-Wai­ehu-Wailuku), has been a state representative since 1982, and served from 1988 to 1992 as chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee. He rose to the top House position of speaker in 1993, and held power until 1999 when he was forced out of that post in a House coup.

More than a decade later Souki returned to power and the speaker's job in another House reorganization in 2013, and he led the House again until he was replaced last year by Rep. Scott Saiki.

House Speaker Scott Saiki released a statement this morning that "although it was not a signatory to the settlement agreement, the House of Representatives concurs with the settlement agreement and will abide by its terms."

"It is regrettable that a legislative career that spanned 36 years is ending in such a manner," Saiki said in his statement. "As a legislator, Representative Souki always put his constituents first. Maui will lose an able and courageous advocate."

In her written statement, Wong also acknowledged Souki "for his decades of public service in Hawaii. His long career in economic development and in the legislature resulted in programs, policies, and laws that impact generations in Maui County and throughout our state."

Wong stressed that she will receive no personal benefit or compensation from filing her complaint with the ethics commission. She served on the Honolulu Ethics Commission from 2010 to 2014, and was familiar with the ethics commission's jurisdiction, "and so I quietly went that route."

"I did not file a lawsuit. I do not seek financial compensation or personal gain. I want to be clear that I respect those who file through the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or through the court system; I just chose a different route," she said in her statement.

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