Kuali‘i denies conflict of interest

LIHU‘E — Kaua‘i County Councilman KipuKai Kuali‘i responded Monday to some community concerns over a possible conflict of interest stemming from his participation in a certain departmental budget review meeting last month.

The first-term councilman, who was appointed April 12, participated in a discussion involving funding for the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney on April 19. OPA distributes federal monies — in the form of Victim of Crime Act assistance grants — to the YWCA, where Kuali‘i serves as the director of operations.

According to County Charter Section 20.04B, any elected official, appointed officer, employee, or any member of a board or commission who possesses or acquires such interest as might reasonably tend to create a conflict with his duties or authority, or who is an owner, officer, executive director or director of an organization in any matter pending before him shall make full disclosure of the conflict of interest and shall not participate in said matter.

Kuali‘i said he does not believe he committed an ethics violation by participating in OPA’s budget review session or any other part of the budget talks. He did recuse himself from budget deliberations on the YWCA Family Violence Shelter and the YWCA Sexual Assault Treatment Program line items, due to his employment, he said.

“I would imagine that had the VOCA funds been on the budget, the county attorney would have advised me to recuse,” Kuali‘i said.

As the director of operations, the paid position includes taking care of facilities management, human resources and volunteer coordination, Kuali‘i said. He added that while the word “director” is in his title, the county attorney advised him that the term is not synonymous with the position referred to in the 20.04B of the charter.

“They mean the board of directors — the people who make the big decisions about the direction of the agency or the organization,” Kuali‘i said. “I’m not the executive director … I’m not on the board. I don’t make any decisions of policy or the overall agency decisions as far as where we go to solicit funding.”

In an earlier conversation, he said he worked for the prosecutor’s office as a law office clerk more than a year ago. Through the temporary contract position, he spent his time serving subpoenas and warrants.

Following Kuali‘i’s appointment to the council, he said he sent an email to various organizations he is involved with to help determine if his relationships with them could lead to any conflicts with the council.

“I think it is my job as a councilmember to be a part of all the decision-making that comes before me as long as there isn’t a potential conflict,” Kuali‘i said. “I respect everyone’s concerns and I want to make sure I’m transparent and reassure the people that I believe in complete honesty.”

Joshua Wisch, a spokesman for the Department of the Attorney General, said his department contracts the bulk of VOCA funding to the four island prosecutors to provide them with local discretion to fund victims services that are needed in their counties.  

He said there are two active VOCA contracts with the Kaua‘i Office of the Prosecuting Attorney for the period August 2010 to July 2011. In 2008, OPA subcontracted $22,000 with YWCA’s Sex Assault Treatment Services and $24,000 with its Family Violence Shelter. It gave $17,320 and $17,321 respectively in 2009.

First Deputy Prosecutor Jake Delaplane said funding received from the Victims of Crime Act grant program must be used for direct services to victims of crime. The OPA has had a relationship with the YWCA for well over a decade in providing direct services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault on Kaua‘i, he said. This relationship has spanned over multiple administrations at the YWCA and the OPA. During this time, a portion of the funds from the OPA’s VOCA grant has been used to provide support for the YWCA Sexual Assault Treatment Program and the Family Violence Shelter, he explained.

“The YWCA is the only organization providing these types of essential services on Kaua‘i, and continues to provide exceptional assistance to the vulnerable victims of these heinous crimes,” Delaplane said in an email to The Garden Island.

Regarding whether there was a conflict of interest, Delaplane said it would be inappropriate to comment about his personal feelings on the matter.

“By the county charter the county attorney’s office is the legal representative for all county agencies and provides all legal advice to county agencies regarding civil matters,” he said. “It is my understanding that the county attorney’s office was consulted regarding a potential conflict and after a careful review it was determined that no conflict existed.”

Renae Hamilton, the executive director of the YWCA, said the VOCA funds funneled through OPA support the nonprofit’s crisis services, including advocates at the family violence shelter, who answer crisis lines 24 hours a day and a therapist who provides counseling to sexual assault victims. Broken down into percentages, VOCA funds pay for 20 percent of a full-time crisis worker’s salary, 50 percent of that of a full-time therapist, and 27 percent for a full-time advocate.

She said she believes Kuali‘i has no conflict of interest because no portion of his salary is covered by VOCA money. VOCA does not pay administrative costs, she said. It’s for direct services only. Additionally, Hamilton said she already had a conversation with the councilman about appropriate times to recuse himself.

Nor could he be currying favor with the prosecuting attorney by speaking in favor of budget items the office would like funded. There are no other organizations that provide services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims on island, she said.

“We’re the only ones contracted that meet standards from the state to do this work,” she said.

Following a query to the county regarding the potential conflict, a reporter was asked to “please refrain from calling others on this.”

“It would not be appropriate for members of the Board of Ethics to comment on matters that are not even before them yet,” said county spokeswoman Beth Tokioka. “Even at that, they would probably refrain from commenting except as a matter of their participating in the proceedings, once they have the facts and are ready to make a ruling.”

She later said that determining whether an ethical violation has occurred is the purview of the Board of Ethics, which would investigate upon a formal complaint being filed. “Unless and until that body opines on the subject, we would be unable to comment.”

To facilitate the discussion, The Garden Island filed a complaint with the county Board of Ethics over Kuali‘i’s participation in the budget discussion. The complaint is expected to be heard by the board at 9 a.m., June 17, said Boards and Commissions Administrator John Isobe. Rule 6.1 (d) of the board’s rules and regulations requires that such proceedings be held in closed session unless the respondent requests it be held in open session.

• Jessica Musicar, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or by e-mailing jmusicar@thegardenisland.com.

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