(With “A New Mayor” in 2002 came a new era of mind boggling and often illegal secrecy and legal deception initiated by Bryan Baptiste’s new County Attorney, Lani Nakazawa.
In Chapter 11 of KPD Blue by Anthony Sommer we meet Nakazawa, the Red Queen of the Smokescreen and initiator of a new era of secret meetings and padlocked records, who now represents Kaua`i as a state “legislative liaison”- a cushy, low-work, high-pay, unbudgeted, lobbying position created by Baptiste without council approval- or knowledge
Despite months of requests from the county council to have Nakazawa appear before them to go over the agenda for the last and the coming legislative sessions, she’s refused to appear with a new excuse every two weeks.
Meet her and get to know the real Bryan Baptiste in this week’s serialization of KPD Blue)
By Anthony Sommer
Chapter 11: A New Mayor
George Freitas’ reinstatement as police chief came early in 2002, the last year of Maryanne Kusaka’s term as mayor. By 2002, Kusaka was very much a lame duck and had little incentive to reopen her war with the chief. She left it to her successor to try again to get rid of Freitas.
Bryan Baptiste, a member of the County Council and Maryanne Kusaka’s protégé, was elected mayor in the fall of 2002. He was known in some circles (not very flatteringly) as “Son of Kusaka.”
Baptiste was so accomplished at fleecing Kauai taxpayers that he managed one last grab at the public coffers even in death.
After Baptiste died following heart surgery in June 2008, his cabinet put on a huge memorial service at the Kauai Convention Center.
The county paid overtime for drivers and fuel costs for special buses to collect anyone anywhere on the island who wanted to attend. Additional buses were added to ferry mourners from a nearby parking lot to the convention center.
Obviously, there was no money for a “state funeral” in the county’s budget, the costs were not made public and the Council never approved the funding beforehand.
Baptiste’s cronies simply spent the tax dollars without approval from anyone.
Baptiste won Kusaka’s favor while he was on the County Council. He volunteered to head one of her pet projects: The beautification of the entrance to Lihue Airport.
Never mind the fact that Lihue Airport was a state airport and the entrance was on a state highway and maybe the state, not Kauai County, should have paid for it.
Baptiste rounded up a large roster of clubs and organizations. Each “adopted” an area of the project with a promise of perpetual care.
When completed, the area, formerly fallow cane fields, had been transformed into a beautiful garden. Signs welcomed tourists driving out of the airport when they arrived and thanked tourists entering the airport when they departed.
On Kauai, tourists are indeed the geese that lay golden eggs.
But the “perpetual care” didn’t last long.
AMFAC (long ago shortened from American Factors and then bought by a real estate company in Chicago), the onetime huge sugar plantation that had promised to provide free water for the flowers, went out of business.
The clubs soon ignored the project and the gardens started to become tangled masses of weeds.
When he became mayor, Baptiste put county work crews to work repairing and maintaining the project. No one mentioned the “volunteerism” that vanished or the fact the county taxpayers were stuck with the maintenance bill. Kusaka didn’t publicly endorse Baptiste as her choice for the next mayor until late in the campaign.
But that was all for show. The same business interests that backed Kusaka had found their new puppet in Baptiste and were pouring money into his coffers.
Largely thanks to what he claimed was a sizable lastminute “loan” from a wealthy relative on Oahu, Baptiste was able to launch a media blitz in the final weeks of the campaign.
The roadsides of Kauai were blanketed with placards promoting “Honest Bryan Baptiste.”
Baptiste narrowly defeated long-time Council Chairman Ron Kouchi, easily the brightest and most politically intuitive politician on Kauai. Drop a pebble in a pond, and Kouchi could accurately predict where and when every ripple would
touch the shore.
The early favorite, Kouchi’s greatest strength, his intellect, also was his Achilles’ heel. In the eyes of Kauai locals who pride themselves on their very minimal education, Kouchi was “scary smart.”
He operated on a level most locals couldn’t comprehend (he used a lot of big words) and hinted at support for changes. Kouchi became a potential threat to the “Kauai Style” that true locals want to remain forever fixed.
Kouchi, a member of the wealthy family that owned and operated Kauai’s largest private waste disposal company, exuded more than a little arrogance.
He was and remains an elitist. In an Asian culture in which perceived humility is the greatest virtue, Kouchi’s lack of appropriate modesty fatally flawed his campaign for mayor.
Exhibit A: Rarely would anyone come up and hug Ron Kouchi.
Exhibit B: Everyone hugged Bryan Baptiste.
Shaped somewhat like a brown Pillsbury Doughboy, bald and with a wispy mustache, Baptiste appeared not the least bit threatening: The very portrait of a benign despot, a Kauai local’s dream leader.
The fact that he was not terribly bright or articulate actually was a political plus on Kauai. He was an “everyman,” the candidate most like the voters.
And he had a political pedigree.
Baptiste’s father, Tony Baptiste, had been chairman of the county board of supervisors in the 1950s and ‘60s, before the counties all switched to a municipal form of government. In effect, he was the equivalent of the mayor.
Tony Baptiste ran Kauai County from a jail cell for a year while serving a term for tax evasion, and that says a great deal about the forgiving nature of the Kauai electorate.
“The voters were so angry at him, they only re-elected him three more times,” Bryan Baptiste liked to point out. That boast says a whole lot more about Bryan Baptiste and his lack of a moral compass than it does about his father.
As long as the voters love you, it doesn’t matter how crooked you are. That was the mindset Baptiste carried into the mayor’s office.
Like Kusaka, who became a Republican to run for mayor in the 1994 primary, Baptiste was a Democrat who turned Republican.
RINO (Republican In Name Only) is what both Kusaka and Baptiste were called.
Just as Kauai County government is almost exclusively a brown-skinned club, a conclave of Kauai Republicans is a vast sea of white faces drinking punch and eating cookies in a resort conference room.
Many were members of the Navy League (which won them free joyrides on Navy ships), and it was this constituency retired Capt. Bob Mullins had brought to Kusaka’s front door. When Mullins left to sell military hardware, they remained true to Kusaka and later to Baptiste.
Kusaka and Baptiste certainly looked out of place in the great haole herd but they got what they wanted: The GOP faithful believed each of the mayors were one of them. No need to look any further.
Events would prove exactly the opposite was true, but that “R” behind a politician’s name carries a lot of weight in the wealthy retirement communities of Princeville and Poipu.
Baptiste’s conversion came after Kusaka gave him the job of managing the county’s convention center, a large meeting facility that never actually hosted a major convention. Many people who went to the convention center mistook Baptiste for the janitor.
And so, Baptiste became a Republican.
“The mayor was a Republican, so switching parties when I took the job just seemed the polite thing to do,” Baptiste said.
Baptiste was hardly a true believer in the GOP. Nor was he philosophically a true Democrat.
The longer Baptiste served as mayor, the more it seemed he became convinced he had been chosen to rule by “Divine Right.”
It didn’t hurt him at all that Republican Linda Lingle had just become the first GOP governor of Hawaii since the 1960s in the same election in which Baptiste became Republican mayor of Kauai.
He brought in several new department heads—all of them born on Kauai, although some had migrated to Honolulu and had to be “brought home.”
Included was County Attorney Lani Nakazawa, a Stanford classmate of former mayor (now Council Member) JoAnn Yukimura.
Nakazawa brought to the office both a keen intellect and a philosophy that it was the role of an attorney to do anything (and everything) to protect her client, no matter what laws or ethical codes she violated.
And she brought with her a very mean and vindictive spirit that she cloaked behind a benign and constant smile. Under Nakazawa’s guidance, virtually any complaint to the Council or a board or commission instantly became “a possible subject for future litigation.” The topic of the complaint thus was forever barred from becoming a matter of public record.
This was true even if the person complaining was simply exerting a First Amendment right and had no intention of filing a lawsuit against the county.
Similarly (although this was true during Kusaka’s reign as well), any time a board or commission met in executive session to discuss its powers, duties, liabilities and limitations with the County Attorney (an exemption from the open meetings statutory requirement that appeared on every agenda of every board and commission), the entire meeting was closed and the minutes forever kept secret.
The fact is, usually only a tiny fraction of the meetings involved getting advice from the lawyer (sometimes none of it at all because the lawyer wasn’t even in the meeting room). There is no doubt that most (or all) of the executive sessions consisted of discussions that legally should have been in open session.
Hawaii’s Open Meeting Law contains a preamble that states the statute should be “liberally construed” and errors, if they are made, should be in the direction of keeping meetings open to the public.
Give Kusaka’s County Attorney Hartwell Blake credit, at least, for honesty. “I construe that statute very conservatively,” he explained. He was admitting he was violating the law, or at least its stated intent.
Nakazawa did the same but she was much more devious than Blake.
Nakazawa also introduced a new fad, already popular on the mainland, which sealed records because personal information about private citizens was discussed in executive sessions: “Privacy Rights.”
She encouraged members of boards and commissions to toss out a few tidbits of gossip about private individuals so the executive session minutes could be forever sealed because there were “privacy issues” involved.
And she had a sense of humor, of sorts.
Asked whether there was any case law in Hawaii or elsewhere to back up any of her constant advice to the county officials to keep meetings closed and file cabinets locked, her response, given with her trademark smile, was: “Well that’s why they’re called county attorney’s opinions, not county attorney’s facts.”
Translation: “If you don’t like it, sue me.”
Nakazawa knew the chances of any journalist or any political activist challenging her methods in court was just about zero.
And, if they did sue, Kauai County has unlimited taxpayer dollars to hire outside lawyers to keep its secrets from public scrutiny.
The County Council repeatedly appropriated sums of $100,000 and more to hire outside legal counsel for her to fight any legal challenges in court. No individual challenger could match the county’s war chest and no news editor had the backbone.
The number of executive sessions skyrocketed. The news media editors continued to sit on their hands and their publishers’ wallets.
A study by The Garden Island newspaper found Kauai County paid $1.9 million to private law firms defending the county and KPD against lawsuits in 2006. That’s out of a total county budget of only $122 million.
And in every case but one (the only one that went to trial), Kauai County settled all of the lawsuits against KPD for large sums of taxpayer money.
Rather than risking public trials with the press covering highly embarrassing public testimony of witnesses— including county officials—Kauai County agreed to pay huge sums of money to almost anyone who sued the police department.