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Big Island Press Club Awards Lava Tube Award to Former Mayor Kenoi – Torch of Light Award to Nancy Cook Lauer

The Big Island Press Club awards its annual meritorious Torch of Light Award to West Hawaii Today reporter Nancy Cook Lauer and the Lava Tube dishonor award to former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi. The Torch of Light award is given to an individual who brightens the public’s right to know, while the Lava Tube dishonor is given for a lack of communication and keeping the public in the dark.

Lava Tube Dishonor

The Lava Tube is awarded to Kenoi 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. Despite his acquittal, Kenoi admitted at the start that “Certainly, I could have used better judgment … I’ve used my pCard when I shouldn’t have.” He admitted to violating the county ethics code.

Further indiscretion uncovered during the mayor’s final year in office included Kenoi’s failure to disclose the sale of lands belonging to him, as required by county law. Between 2012 and 2014, Kenoi and his wife sold over two dozen acres of agricultural-zoned land worth nearly $400,000 and did not list these transactions on annual forms requiring the mayor to report “real property with a fair-market value of $5,000 or more sold during the disclosure period.”

Since its founding, the Big Island Press Club has protested any absence of transparency or accountability within the halls of state and county government in Hawaii. The BIPC’s officers believe that Kenoi’s lack of transparency regarding his personal assets and taxpayer-funded expenditures was a disservice to the citizens he was elected to represent. Big Island residents should be able to trust their chief executive to be forthcoming in his or her dealings as a public official and, with these acts, Kenoi failed to honor that trust.

Torch of Light

BIPC has selected Nancy Cook Lauer, a reporter for West Hawaii Today, for its Torch of Light award. Cook Lauer is honored for her work on breaking the story surrounding Kenoi’s use of a county-issued pCard.

As a column in Honolulu Civil Beat explains, “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.”

When covering the mayor, Cook Lauer had requested access to a number of financial disclosure reports concerning Mayor Kenoi’s travel expenses, only to be sidelined by the county. Cook Lauer 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 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.

The Big Island Press Club, the state’s oldest press club, founded in 1967– has awarded the Lava Tube and the Torch of Light annually since 1997 on Freedom of Information Day, March 16. This day also marks the birthday of our nation’s fourth president, James Madison. Born in 1751, Madison was the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution, and one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers; he is recognized by historians as one of America’s earliest and foremost advocates for open, accountable governance.

Previous Lava Tube Dishonorees

  • 2015 State Land Board Chairwoman Suzanne Case
  • 2014 Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago
  • 2013 Democratic Party House District 5 Council
  • 2012 State Sen. Clayton Hee
  • 2011 Governor Neil Abercrombie
  • 2010 Hawaii County Council
  • 2009 Noelani Whittington, County Department of Public Works
  • 2008 Mayor Harry Kim and Hawaii County Council
  • 2007 State Board of Education
  • 2006 Honolulu, Kauai, and Hawaii County Councils
  • 2005 District Judge Matthew S.K. Pyun
  • 2004 State Land Board Chairman Peter Young
  • 2003 State Sen. Cal Kawamoto
  • 2002 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
  • 2001 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
  • 2000 State Rep. Eric Hamakawa and Hawaii County Councilman James Arakaki
  • 1999 Hawaii County Council
  • 1998 Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano
  • 1997 Hawaii County Councilman Elroy Osorio

Previous Torch of Light Honorees

  • 2015 State Sen. Lorraine Inouye
  • 2014 USGS HVO Scientists
  • 2013 Mayor Billy Kenoi
  • 2012 County Councilwoman and state Rep. Helene Hale (posthumously)
  • 2011 State Judicial Selection Commission
  • 2010 Hawaii County Civil Defense and other departments
  • 2009 Legislature, Gov. Linda Lingle
  • 2008 Les Kondo, Office of Information Practices
  • 2007 West Hawaii Today
  • 2006 Lillian Koller, State Department of Human Services
  • 2005 Retired Circuit Judge Paul de Silva
  • 2004 UH Manoa Journalism Professor Beverly Keever
  • 2003 U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink (posthumously)
  • 2002 Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim
  • 2001 Hawaii County Clerk Al Konishi
  • 2000 Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano
  • 1999 Jerry Rothstein and Judith Graham
  • 1998 Environment Hawaii and Common Cause
  • 1997 Society of Professional Journalists, Hawaii Chapter

2015 Big Island Press Club Torch of Light Award and Lava Tube Dishonor Named

The Big Island Press Club awards its annual meritorious Torch of Light Award to state Sen. Lorraine Inouye and the Lava Tube dishonor award to Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case.

bipc logo

The Torch of Light award is given to an individual who brightens the public’s right to know, while the Lava Tube dishonor is given for a lack of communication and keeping the public in the dark.

Lava Tube Dishonor

The Lava Tube is awarded to DLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case, who hails from Hilo, for setting up roadblocks to the media who have tried to gather information and gain access on matters large and small.

In particular, Case is cited for trying to issue special restrictions to the media — but not the public– on access to Mauna Kea during protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope, and for creating special rules for the media– but not the public– to follow when contacting division chiefs.

A Hawaii Tribune-Herald news article describing these restrictions included this quote, “I respect the DLNR’s desire to keep everyone safe on Mauna Kea, but I would strongly urge the state to give our reporters and photographers the same access as any other members of the public, including the protesters,” said David Bock, Tribune-Herald editor and publisher. “The newspaper opposes any effort to confine its news gathering to a media staging area.”

The rules imposed by DLNR for the media include blocking access to division heads and other personnel who would know the answer to what are sometimes simple procedural questions on their areas of expertise. DLNR has also blocked journalists from asking questions at community meetings, while allowing non-journalists to ask similar questions.

“DLNR staff and management are instructed not to respond to direct news media calls,” states a DLNR media protocol emailed to the media. “Contacting staff directly will likely delay a response to your request.”

DLNR’s media protocol, hinder, rather than assist, journalists across Hawaii who are trying to meet their deadlines and provide the public with information in a timely manner.

Torch of Light

BIPC has selected Sen. Lorraine Inouye, a North Hawaii Island Democrat, for its Torch of Light award. Inouye is honored for assisting the Big Island Press Club and sponsoring a bill to allow a media exemption to Act 111, a recently enacted law that gives broad emergency powers to the government.

When the June 27 Kilauea lava flow threatened the town of Pahoa in 2015, Hawaii County officials blocked all media access to the flow and its impact zones. Big Island Press Club members met with county officials to try to work out a mutually agreeable solution regarding access and were willing to meet the demands made of them, including paying for increased insurance liability waivers, undergoing specialized safety training and other safety measures.  Instead, journalists in Hawaii and across the nation were unable to independently verify events and were provided government-sanctioned photos and updates.

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 make informed decisions, rather than react based on misinformation or ignorance.

Recognizing that a free press is the cornerstone of democracy, Inouye has carried the torch for government openness. She workshopped with BIPC on the bill, steadfastly pushed forward in the face of opposition and persistently explained the bill while winning skeptics to her side.

Inouye will be honored with a special Torch of Light trophy later this year at BIPC’s annual Christmas party.

The Big Island Press Club — the state’s oldest press club, founded in 1967– has awarded the Lava Tube and the Torch of Light annually since 1997 on Freedom of Information Day, March 16, the birthday of James Madison. Born in 1751, Madison was an author of the U.S. Constitution and a “Federalist Papers” author and one of the nation’s foremost advocates for government openness.

Previous Lava Tube Dishonorees

  • 2014 Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago
  • 2013 Democratic Party House District 5 Council
  • 2012 State Sen. Clayton Hee
  • 2011 Governor Neil Abercrombie
  • 2010 Hawaii County Council
  • 2009 Noelani Whittington, County Department of Public Works
  • 2008 Mayor Harry Kim and Hawaii County Council
  • 2007 State Board of Education
  • 2006 Honolulu, Kauai, and Hawaii County Councils
  • 2005 District Judge Matthew S.K. Pyun
  • 2004 State Land Board Chairman Peter Young
  • 2003 State Sen. Cal Kawamoto
  • 2002 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
  • 2001 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
  • 2000 State Rep. Eric Hamakawa and Hawaii County Councilman James Arakaki
  • 1999 Hawaii County Council
  • 1998 Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano
  • 1997 Hawaii County Councilman Elroy Osorio

Previous Torch of Light Honorees

  • 2014 USGS HVO Scientists
  • 2013 Mayor Billy Kenoi
  • 2012 County Councilwoman and state Rep. Helene Hale (posthumously)
  • 2011 State Judicial Selection Commission
  • 2010 Hawaii County Civil Defense and other departments
  • 2009 Legislature, Gov. Linda Lingle
  • 2008 Les Kondo, Office of Information Practices
  • 2007 West Hawaii Today
  • 2006 Lillian Koller, State Department of Human Services
  • 2005 Retired Circuit Judge Paul de Silva
  • 2004 UH Manoa Journalism Professor Beverly Keever
  • 2003 U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink (posthumously)
  • 2002 Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim
  • 2001 Hawaii County Clerk Al Konishi
  • 2000 Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano
  • 1999 Jerry Rothstein and Judith Graham
  • 1998 Environment Hawaii and Common Cause
  • 1997 Society of Professional Journalists, Hawaii Chapter