HILO — Attorneys hired by former County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong in what became a high-stakes lawsuit will not be paid for their work after action Tuesday by the new County Council.
The council voted 7-2 to revert back to its coffers $42,499 in fees previously budgeted for attorneys who advised Yagong and former County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi in employee grievances that later escalated to lawsuits filed by fired Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto and Elections Specialist Shyla Ayau. Both were reinstated following the union grievance procedure.
Their defamation lawsuit against the county has subsequently been dismissed by 3rd Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Strance, but the lawsuit against Yagong and Kawauchi in their individual capacities is ongoing. A May 6 hearing has been set to hear various motions filed by each side.
“The council finds that the encumbrances that have been in effect since February 2012 are invalid,” states Resolution 94, adding that the new county clerk has cancelled the purchase orders.
Council members approving the resolution worried that if they didn’t vote in favor, the money would go back into the county’s general fund, instead of into the County Council’s budget. They agreed with Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida that the purchase order was invalid because the council did not conduct the requisite two-thirds vote to retain special counsel.
“We can’t lose this money,” said Puna Councilman Zendo Kern. “We need it; we’re in a tough economic time.”
But South Kona/Ka’u Councilwoman Brenda Ford said the money was encumbered when the previous council struck contracts with the law firms. She said Yagong as chief procurement officer could hire attorneys under state law, provided they’re for legal advice, not litigation. Ford said the attorneys were consulted when Corporation Counsel declared a conflict. That conflict was later resolved.
The attorneys who will not get paid following the council action are Honolulu law firms Torkildson, Katz, Moore, Hetherington & Harris, $25,000 and O’Connor, Playdon & Guben LLP, $15,000 and Kailua-Kona attorney Michael Matsukawa, $2,499.
“They in good faith came forward and did work for the prior county council and they were not paid. We operated under the law … this lawsuit is not over yet. There will be ramifications,” Ford said. “This is totally political.”
Ford’s comments drew a rebuke from Kern, who advised council members to “treat each other with a decent discourse and level of respect.”
“We can do better than this,” Kern said.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille was the other dissenting vote.
Ashida said after the meeting the issue remains a legal one. The county charter requires a two-thirds vote for the council to hire legal counsel, he said.
“It may be political for her,” Ashida said. “But it’s always been legal for me. It’s always been about the law.”