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WHT reporter earns Torch of Light award

March 17, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — West Hawaii Today senior reporter Nancy Cook Lauer earned the Big Island Press Club’s Torch of Light award for her work on breaking the story surrounding former-Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi’s use of a county-issued pCard.

The press club, the state’s oldest press club, founded in 1967, has awarded the Torch of Light annually since 1997 on Freedom of Information Day, which was Thursday.

The Torch of Light award is given to an individual who brightens the public’s right to know.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to receive this prestigious award,” Cook Lauer said. “It feels good to be recognized by your peers.”

When covering the mayor, Cook Lauer had requested access to a number of financial disclosure reports concerning Kenoi’s travel expenses, only to be sidelined by the county. She was able to report on Kenoi’s alleged misdeeds with the help of an anonymous source, who provided Cook Lauer with the necessary documents implicating Kenoi in the ensuing scandal.

The allegations against Kenoi were serious enough for Cook Lauer and other journalists to further investigate the mayor’s pCard use. The ensuing due process of law would not have been possible without Cook Lauer’s initial reporting on the mayor, the press club said.

“The BIPC has always maintained that it is the role of the media to bear witness and be the eyes and ears of the public. Independent reporting is critical to providing the public necessary information so that they may infer informed conclusions about their government, especially concerning the people elected to represent them,” a statement announcing the award read.

The club also pointed out a quote in a Honolulu Civil Beat column noting “Lauer is the dogged reporter who uncovered Kenoi’s questionable use of a county credit card, including charging taxpayers for the $900 he spent in one day at a Honolulu ‘hostess’ bar.”

The Big Island Press Club on Thursday also awarded the Lava Tube dishonor, which is given for a lack of communication and keeping the public in the dark, to Kenoi.

The club said it gave Kenoi the Lava Tube for his failure to disclose a number of personal expenditures relating to his use of a county-issued purchasing card, as well as a failure to disclose as required by law other financial matters such as real estate sales.

Kenoi’s admitted misuse of his pCard involved large alcohol and food expenses, including visits to Honolulu hostess bars. A surfboard and other purchases considered personal were also uncovered, including “meals at the Volcano House Restaurant and the Hilo Yacht Club,” for which Kenoi was accused of falsifying records. The mayor repaid taxpayers for the purchases, though some payments took years, and not until they were uncovered by journalists.

Kenoi was eventually indicted on theft and record-tampering felony charges, but was acquitted after state prosecutors were unable to convince a jury that he had intentionally planned to “permanently deprive” funds from the taxpayers of Hawaii County.

“I speak for everyone at West Hawaii Today when I say we couldn’t be prouder for Nancy,” Tom Hasslinger, WHT editor, said. “It’s a privilege having her part of our team.”

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