Last week, Maui County Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong made more than $2,800 without having to lift a finger. How’d he get such a sweet gig? He was arrested, of course.
Wong, the county’s top civil attorney, was placed on paid administrative leave by Mayor Mike Victorino on March 9 after being arrested and charged by the Maui Police Department for abuse of a household member. “I do not tolerate abuse or harmful behavior from anyone,” the mayor said in a statement, after announcing what amounts to a paid vacation for Wong.
“Our justice system provides due process,” Victorino explained later. “A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
When asked what a decision on Wong’s removal or reinstatement is pending, Victorino’s Communications Office was not forthcoming. After repeated requests, spokesman Brian Perry answered simply, “I’m unable to answer speculative questions or comment on personnel matters.”
So, presumably, Victorino is keeping Wong on paid leave while the “justice system provides due process,” something that could take months. It’s a process backed by Councilmember Riki Hokama, who told me he would wait for the results of the investigation, because “I don’t make decisions based on allegations.”
The situation is similar to one currently unfolding on O‘ahu, with Honolulu’s Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and Corporation Counsel Donna Leong on paid leave as a result of an investigation into their involvement in alleged crimes committed by Katherine and Louis Kealoha.
“It seems that we have this backwards. Why shouldn’t such employees be placed on unpaid leave instead?” Honolulu Civil Beat’s Chad Blair posed in a March 13 column. “If they are eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, they could get a big fat check in back pay and maybe keep their job. But if they are convicted of a crime, taxpayers could keep the money – it belongs to them, after all.”
In comments to MauiTime last week, Council Chair Kelly King affirmed the use of paid administrative leave, saying that at times it has protected the wrongly accused. However, she suggested that Wong’s resignation could be a fitting resolution.
“Given these allegations,” King said, “I think that’s something he should really be thinking about. The mayor should be seriously thinking about that: How can [Wong] go back to being the director and there not be major doubts?”
Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez has also called for Wong’s resignation.
“There is no question in my mind that Pat Wong should resign,” she told me, citing a pattern of “abusive behavior” in the workplace which, along with his recent arrest, she said qualify as misconduct under the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct for practicing lawyers.
Rawlins-Fernandez added that Wong, as legal advisor to the county, “should have held himself to a much higher standard.”
Wong’s right to due process is applicable regarding whether he is disbarred or convicted, she said, but “as to keeping the position as lead attorney for the County of Maui, the mayor is aware that Mr. Wong is an ‘at will’ appointed position, and appointed employees can be relieved of their positions, and have been relieved of their positions in the past for far less.”
“The mayor should uphold his ‘no tolerance’ policy,” she concluded.
Calls for Wong’s resignation have also risen from councilmembers who supported Wong in his confirmation hearings, such as Councilmembers Alice Lee and Mike Molina.
“I believe Mr. Wong should step down,” Lee told me. “This is not a pre-judgement of guilt on my part, as I realize Mr. Wong’s case is still under investigation… I believe this is a situation of lack of good judgement, especially coming on the heels of a public and very contentious confirmation process. Under the circumstances, I think Mr. Wong will have a cloud of doubt over this head for some time if he stayed in his current position.”
Molina agreed. “I believe that Mr. Wong should be allowed due process, however I believe this should be accomplished with minimal disruption to the Office of Corporation Counsel and the Office of the Mayor,” he said. “As long as Mr. Wong remains in office and the investigation continues, there is potential for distraction and interference with office operations.”
“The mayor has stated that ‘I have zero tolerance for domestic abuse,’” Molina continued. “If the mayor truly believes in ‘zero tolerance’ for domestic abuse, then Mr. Wong should not be on paid leave.”
As of press time, Councilmembers Tasha Kama and Shane Sinenci stated they had no comment for this story. Councilmembers Yuki Lei Sugimura and Tamara Paltin did not respond to requests for comment.
Image courtesy Maui Police Department