By NANCY COOK LAUER
Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi has asked the state Attorney General’s Office to help sort out apparent discrepancies in the county voter registration database.
Kawauchi requested a meeting with the office in Honolulu and met there Thursday, said Josh Wisch, special assistant to Attorney General David M. Louie. Wisch declined to comment on what transpired during the meeting.
Kawauchi, in an interview with Stephens Media on Friday, confirmed the meeting but also declined to disclose what the meeting was about. In response to published reports on Hawaii News Now quoting an unnamed “law enforcement source” alleging possible voter fraud around some absentee ballots being improperly “doctored,” Kawauchi would say only, “that was not part of my review.”
“Based upon my review of the County of Hawaii voter registry, I found some things I thought should be investigated further, so I contacted the state Office of Elections,” Kawauchi said. “I also met with the state Attorney General’s Office.”
Kawauchi on Monday had closed the county Elections Office to complete a review of the voter registration list she had begun over the weekend. She remained closed-mouthed Friday regarding what exactly has caused her concerns.
When asked if the apparent discrepancies predated her tenure, Kawauchi, who took office in 2011, declined comment.
Among those questioning the office closure was Hilo County Councilman Dennis Onishi, who on Tuesday sent state Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago a letter asking the state to take over the county elections. Onishi, who is running unopposed for his seat, has said he’s concerned inexperienced elections staff will botch the election, requiring it to be done over. Onishi provided Stephens Media a copy of the letter following a telephone call he initiated expressing his concerns.
“I must strongly insist that the state Office of Elections take all control of the operations for the coming elections,” Onishi said in his letter. “This has put the integrity of the Election Office in shambles. Now, who can say this coming Primary Elections will be fair and open? I feel that transparency of fair and open elections has been lost.”
When asked if she thinks there is a political motivation behind the allegations, Kawauchi declined comment.
The voter registration list is not compiled from scratch each election, rather it is added to and purged as people join the rolls, die, move away or commit felonies. With 101,728 registered voters, a relatively high percentage of Hawaii County’s voting age population is on it — some 71.2 percent of the 142,799 people 18 years and older reported in the 2010 census.
Nago sent Kawauchi a letter Wednesday, saying the office is “fielding calls as to what is going on in your county.” Nago sent a copy of the letter to Stephens Media at the newspaper’s request for recent correspondence with the county office.
“Your closure on July 23, 2012, and your failure to thoroughly communicate to the rest of the election community and the media as to the reasons for the closure, has unnecessarily led to significant speculation in the public about the integrity of our elections only a few weeks before the Aug. 11. 2012, primary election,” Nago said in the letter. “This is simply unacceptable on the part of a fellow election administrator.”
When asked if she has concerns about the integrity of data in the Elections Office, Kawauchi repeated that “I found some things I thought should be investigated further,” but declined to be more specific.
Calls to Nago were referred to state elections spokesman Rex Quidilla, who said Friday Kawauchi has not responded to the letter, nor contacted the office to set up a meeting.
However, Kawauchi responded to the letter at 9:24 p.m. Wednesday, according to an email to Nago and the Deputy Attorney General assigned to the Elections Office, Aaron H. Schulaner, that the County Clerk’s Office provided in response to a request from Stephens Media. She offered to meet with them at the Attorney General’s Office in Honolulu. But the meeting did not take place, Kawauchi said Friday, because Schulaner wanted it to be held at the Pearl City office, and her other meeting ran too late to get there and make her flight back to Hilo.
The office first came under fire in January after Kawauchi fired Elections Office Administrator Pat Nakamoto, warehouse manager Glen Shikuma and two other employees following an investigation that alleged drinking, storage of alcohol and running a private business out of the county elections warehouse on Makaala Street. Nakamoto has since been reinstated after a grievance process conducted by the administration and is on indefinite paid leave.
The investigation was initiated by Kawauchi along with County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who had conducted a site visit at the warehouse and found issues that raised their concern, Yagong said. As the council chairman, Yagong is Kawauchi’s de facto boss, controlling the council majority that hired her. He currently is challenging Mayor Billy Kenoi for mayor.
Nago, writing as a private individual on April 17, sent Kenoi a letter praising Nakamoto’s work and urging the mayor not to recuse himself on the case or send it to arbitration, according to the letter obtained from the Mayor’s Office under Hawaii open records laws.
“As the elections administrator for the county of Hawaii, Ms. Nakamoto has worked successfully with her counterparts in the Office of Elections and the other counties,” Nago said in the letter. “To the extent her appeal results in her eventual reinstatement, it is clearly better that it occur as soon as possible so she may contribute to the successful outcome of the 2012 elections.”
Nakamoto’s ties to the state Office of Elections run deep. She’s currently in a live-in relationship with Nago’s former boss, former Chief Elections Officer Dwayne Yoshina, according to former County Clerk Ken Goodenow, whose campaign website for County Council showed Nakamoto and Yoshina at a campaign workers meeting.
Quidilla said both he and Nago formerly worked for Yoshina. He said that has “none whatsoever” influence on the office’s letters to Kawauchi. Attempts to reach Nakamoto and Yoshina, who do not have listed telephone numbers, were unsuccessful Friday.
“The fact is we worked under Dwayne when he was the chief elections officer and we had our respective divisions …. We treat all the elections officers and the county clerks all the same,” Quidilla said. “We all work together.”
Hilo attorney Ted Hong, who represents Nakamoto, said the former elections administrator would rather not speak to the media because she’s uncomfortable with the publicity. He said, however, that he is authorized to speak for her.
“There’s not been anything yet to challenge either Pat’s integrity or Scott’s integrity,” Hong said of the letter to Kenoi.
Of more concern, Hong said, is the fact that apparent errors are cropping up that he’s sure Nakamoto, as an experienced elections administrator, could deal with promptly. With just two weeks until the election, things should be in place by now, he said.
“Are they prepared to justify their actions in federal district court if someone loses the right to vote because of their neglect and their inability to handle this job?” Hong said.
When asked if she thought Hawaii County was being singled out for special scrutiny from the state Elections Office, Kawauchi said, “I have questions about that. I’ll be looking into that.”
Asked if she thought Nakamoto’s ties to the state has any bearing on the situation, Kawauchi declined to discuss personnel matters.
However, she insisted the Elections Office staff that is in place is ready to run the election properly.
“The public is the priority. The Office of the County Clerk wants the public to know we are doing everything we can to make sure that our county has a fair and well-run election,” Kawauchi said. “We will keep the public informed as appropriate.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.