Margery Bronster, A.G.

Margery Bronster

Who is this person who dares to
go eye to eye with Bishop Estate?

By Mike Yuen

When state Attorney General Margery Bronster was a sophomore at Brown University, she flunked a Chinese literature course.

That led Bronster's instructor to suggest that she might want to rethink her desire to have a career tied to China. Even the department chairman at the Providence, R.I., school called Bronster in for a "heart-to-heart" chat.

But Bronster persevered."I didn't give up. And I did get my degree in Chinese," says Bronster, now 39, who retook and got an "A" - but no credit - in the only course she failed in her academic career. She also eventually won the respect of the professor who initially thought she didn't measure up as a China scholar.

It is that sort of tenacity that Bronster brings to her investigation of the Bishop Estate, one of the nation's largest charitable trusts, say attorneys and state government officials familiar with her.

The inquiry -- sparked by the "Broken Trust" opinion piece in the Star-Bulletin by five prominent community leaders that raised questions as to how the estate's five trustees are selected, paid and perform their trust duties -- could be the most significant case in defining her tenure as attorney general, Bronster acknowledges.

"It is something enormous. It is a major challenge," Bronster says. "The way to do it is one step at a time, as I did with Chinese. Learning Chinese was a real daunting proposition, but I think I did it by taking it slowly and not getting scared off by the task."

The estate is one of Hawaii's most powerful institutions and also the state's largest private landowner. One of its attorneys, William McCorriston, has accused Bronster of using "weasel words" to stall her own investigation.

Bronster denies that. Her accusation that the estate was stonewalling was intended to send a message that she intends to be very firm in pursuing her inquiry.

"I don't think you can do this halfway. There have been a lot of things floating around, and we have to either determine that there's some basis to them or there is no basis and get it all behind us," Bronster asserts.

Won't be intimidated

"She's not going to be intimidated, that's for sure," says state Budget Director Earl Anzai.

Bronster, who only met Gov. Ben Cayetano once prior to his election in 1994, hasn't been intimidated by Anzai, who has known the governor for more than two decades and is one of his closest associates. She and Anzai have clashed on several occasions.

Bronster, says Anzai, "stands behind principle to a fault."

Anzai's example: During meetings with Cayetano in which Bishop Estate or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been discussed, Bronster wanted Anzai to leave. Cayetano agreed.

Anzai, an attorney, has worked OHA; and his wife, attorney Lyn Anzai has worked for Bishop Estate. Moreover, Anzai is also a close friend of OHA chairman Clayton Hee.

Bronster is "probably right" in seeking to ensure that he is not involved or present for estate and OHA discussions, but it does make him feel that he can't be trusted, says Anzai, who has been outspoken as to what needs to be done to ease the state's budget crunch.

Anzai and Bronster also fought over who has the authority to select bond counsel. Anzai thought that since his office issues the bonds, he should be responsible. But Bronster noted that state law says the attorney general has that authority.

"She won," Anzai acknowledges.

Bronster, Anzai says, can be impatient and does not gladly tolerate fools.

"Marj," Cayetano says, "tends to be a real stickler for detail. And sometimes people say she micromanages. But overall I think she has done an outstanding job."

Her career

In 1982, after graduating with honors from Columbia University law school, Bronster joined Shearman & Sterling, one of New York City's largest law firms, because it decided to represent Chinese government entities.

A partner in Shearman & Sterling, Jeremy Epstein, describes Bronster as smart, tough and resourceful. That assessment is echoed by others.

It was at Shearman & Sterling that Bronster became a litigator in commercial cases. The experience moved her away from China; it also helped her get a job with Carlsmith Ball Wichman Murray Case & Ichiki, one of Honolulu's largest law firms, where she became a partner in less than two years.

But it was her marriage that brought her to Hawaii. Bronster's husband is Mark Fukunaga, chairman and chief executive officer of Servco Pacific Inc., the automotive, marine and real estate development enterprise.

Bronster's experience as a commercial litigator will help her in confronting the Bishop Estate, Anzai says. "Commercial litigation is all-out war," he adds.

Bronster "was forceful when necessary," remembers Larry Okinaga, a partner in Carlsmith Ball. "When she thought she was right, she didn't relent. One could not get anything over her."

Okinaga says that in the early 1990s he saw Bronster's interest turn increasingly to the public sector and "the big picture."

She was a planning committee co-chairwoman of the Citizens Conference on Judicial Selection. The parley's recommendations to reduce the governor's appointments to the Judicial Selection Commission were adopted, given widespread concerns that politics outweighed merit in the process.

It was through their work on the conference that attorney Robert Toyofuku, who would later serve on Cayetano's transition team, got to know Bronster. He suggested that she consider applying for attorney general.

"She was not my candidate or anybody else's candidate," Toyofuku says. But, he adds, she appeared to be what Cayetano wanted: competent and independent.

Initially, Bronster didn't want to apply. She thought she wouldn't be selected. Then she concluded that she had nothing to lose by applying.

Cayetano says that when Bronster's application first crossed his desk, "I couldn't even remember who she was."

The first time their paths crossed, Cayetano later learned, was at a campaign coffee hour at Carlsmith Ball. She was in the audience.

Bronster was among the half-dozen applicants who made the short list for attorney general. Then she was one of two finalists. Bronster's competition: "a good trial attorney" from the mainland who had been in the isles a long time, married to a local woman.

"I thought it was time for a woman attorney general," Cayetano says. "I've always felt that all things being equal - and I'm not for a quota system or anything like that - it should go to the woman."

But there was more than gender equity, Cayetano adds. He was convinced that Bronster was willing to stand up to him and tell him whether what he wanted to do was right or wrong.

"I picked up good vibes," Cayetano recalls.

Margery Bronster

Here's a look at the attorney general.

Age: 39.

Place of birth: New York City.

Previous experience: Partner, Carlsmith Ball Wichman Murray Case & Ichiki, Honolulu; associate, Shearman & Sterling, New York City, specialized in commercial litigation, international business and securities law.

Education: Columbia University School of Law, law degree (honors), 1982; Brown University, bachelor's degree with majors in Chinese language and literature, and history, 1979.

Personal: Married, with a 71/2-year-old daughter.

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