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Ethics Board dismisses Naeole complaint

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

The county Board of Ethics voted Wednesday, Nov. 10 to dismiss a complaint filed against Puna Councilwoman Emily Naeole by a former campaign volunteer.

Toni Robert filed a petition – weeks before Naeole faced three challengers for her council seat in the Primary Election – claiming Naeole and her staff used the County Council office, equipment and staff for campaign work.

Emily Naeole

The board voted last month to conduct an informal hearing into Robert’s complaint.

Board chairman John Dill said Wednesday that Robert’s petition raised three issues: whether county resources were used to order campaign T-shirts and bags; whether Naeole unfairly treated one staff member, who also volunteered on the campaign; and whether county resources were used to communicate with a newspaper reporter about a candidate questionnaire.

Naeole, who lost her bid for reelection in last week’s General Election, never told anyone to use county equipment, time or resources to conduct campaign business, said her attorney Brian DeLima.

He said the complaint was politically motivated.

Robert said she had no personal or political vendetta against Naeole, had not previously worked on a campaign and had been unaware of campaign restrictions spelled out in the county Code of Ethics. She said learned of the regulations days before she filed the petition in mid-September.

Robert, a Pahoa resident, presented copies of emails dated in July and August that detailed campaign business. The emails were sent to and from Gwen Kupahu’s county account.

However, the board decided the emails did not show Naeole directly violated the Code of Ethics. Kupahu was ill and not able to attend the hearing, Naeole said.

The councilwoman “was not about to throw Gwen Kupahu under a bus,” DeLima said.

The board also decided Kupahu may only have responded to emails, which was understandable and constituted a “technical, minimal violation.”

Dill said the allegation of unfair treatment toward a staff member was “very subjective” and the board could not address the issue as that staff member did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.

Dill said he appreciated Robert filing the petition and “I applaud you for being brave enough.”

DeLima said Naeole accepts full responsibility for the actions of her staff.

It was not clear what that responsibility might be, as the board then voted to dismiss the complaint.

Robert said she was disappointed in the ruling as she was seeking to restore public trust and ensure the Code of Ethics is adhered to by county employees whose salaries and work place (including equipment) is paid by taxpayers.

“If it was her first campaign or her second campaign, I could understand. But this is her third one; she should know,” Robert said. “To me, this is a pattern. I thought the evidence was clear.”

Under the county code, use of county funds or equipment for campaign purposes is subject to penalties and administrative fines up to $1,000 per violation.

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