County wins lawsuit; Higa won’t pursue appeal

  • Stacy Higa

HILO — A 12-year-old chapter in Hawaii County’s political history has closed with an appellate court order and a former county official deciding not to pursue further litigation.

At issue was an appeal by former County Council chairman and Hilo mayoral candidate Stacy Higa, who sued the county for legal malpractice after an employment complaint alleged he sexually harassed an aide.

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Higa claimed county officials’ comments following an almost $250,000 settlement the county paid to former aide Melissa Chang cost him the 2008 mayoral election.

The Intermediate Court of Appeals on March 9 upheld the Circuit Court ruling against Higa, and the former councilman said Wednesday he’s not going to fight it further. He said he “respects and accepts” the court’s findings.

“As a father and husband, I have put my family through enough. Therefore I will no longer pursue this,” Higa said in a response to the newspaper. “I accept the fact that no matter what anyone says or wants to believe, I cannot change their opinions. People who know me and care for me understand the type of person that I am.”

The appellate court also ruled Higa does not have to pay the county’s attorney fees. The county had denied any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement.

The County Council, in a 2016 executive session, voted 9-0 to continue using Honolulu attorney Calvin Young as outside counsel to handle the case. The council had previously approved paying the law firm up to $100,000 to defend the county against Higa’s claims.

Since October 2008, the county has paid $95,680.26 to the law firm, Finance Director Deanna Sako said Wednesday.

“While acting in an intentional, reckless or negligent manner, Corporation Counsel uttered derogatory public statements adverse to Stacy’s interests while still acting as his counsel,” the lawsuit states, naming former Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida in particular.

Higa was represented by Honolulu attorney William Harrison.

The county noted in its answer brief that it prevailed on summary judgment in the lower court “because the Higas’ claims rest purely on speculative allegations and they failed to meet their burden of proof to establish legal malpractice.”

It added that corporation counsel was defending the county, not Higa, in the lawsuit, and that Higa was advised to seek a private attorney.

“Sexual harassment is not considered an act within the course and scope of Mr. Higa’s employment as a council member,” and therefore corporation counsel was barred from representing him, the answering brief states.

The county had won summary judgment on the issue in circuit court when it argued that Higa can’t prove that the charges and the county’s defense cost him the mayoral election.

Following the scandal, the two-term lawmaker received just 5.9 percent of the votes in the 2008 primary election, giving him a distant fourth-place finish in the eight-candidate field. Former Mayor Billy Kenoi went on to win.

More recently, Higa was one of three finalists local Democrats last year forwarded to Gov. David Ige to fill the District 2 House seat that was vacated by the death of former Democratic Rep. Clift Tsuji. Ige selected Chris Todd, who faces his first election this year, from the list.

While working as a legislative assistant for Higa in 2005 and 2006, Chang “was the subject of unwanted and unwelcome remarks, requests and attention from Council member Stacy Higa,” according to the complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2007.

Those remarks “consisted of numerous requests for dates, invitations to take trips, statements directed at a relationship with Mr. Higa, and a physical contact with her,” adds the complaint, which noted Higa was married.

Chang claimed she suffered “serious mental and emotional distress” because of a “hostile work environment,” causing her to quit her job in April 2006, her complaint alleged.

Higa has, in the past, vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

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Wednesday, he was ready to put it behind him.

“I have come to a place in my life, that I will continue to work every day to make our community a better place,” Higa said. “I want to thank my lawyers, friends, family, and most importantly wife and son for their unwavering love and support.”