Most people would
run for cover from...
The estate employs a hostBy Rick Daysog
of well-connected, top attorneys
When it comes to its legal armament, few can match the arsenal that Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate can bring to the courtroom.
The $10 billion charitable trust -- the state's largest private landowner -- employs an army of well-connected attorneys that includes a former governor, two former state attorneys general and the former chairman of Hawaii's Republican Party.
The estate's outside legal team also lists House Judiciary Chairman Terrance Tom and Bill McCorriston, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has represented former Mayor Frank Fasi and was on the city Charter Commission.
"With this kind of legal cannon pointed at you, most people would run for cover," said Beadie Dawson, attorney for Na Pua a Ke Ali'i Pauahi, which has criticized trustees' management of Kamehameha Schools.
"They've (hired) every good litigation attorney in town."
The estate maintains that it hires attorneys for their expertise. Waihee and Tom were hired because they are good attorneys and not because of their political ties, the estate said.
McCorriston, who is representing the estate in Attorney General Margery Bronster's investigation of the trust, added that the trust is like any major corporation that hires lawyers to represent its diverse legal interests.
For instance, for leasehold and litigation matters, the estate relies on Mike Hare and the Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright law firm. The Verner Liipfert firm conducts much of its Washington, D.C., lobbying, while McCorriston's firm, McCorriston Miho Miller Mukai, has done mostly land-use work, McCorriston said.
Bishop Estate trustee Gerard Jervis considered joining the McCorriston Miho firm several months ago as an outside counsel. But Jervis said he decided against the move because of his heavy workload with the estate.
Jervis denied any conflict since he didn't join the firm.
Jon Miho, one of the firm's founders and a friend of Jervis', added that if Jervis had joined McCorriston Miho, it would have made it more difficult for the firm to do work for the estate.
Jervis also shares close political ties with Washington, D.C.-based Verner Liipfert through its local partner Waihee. Jervis served on the Judicial Selection Commission during the Waihee years.
Verner Liipfert -- whose mainland offices lists former U.S Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, former Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards on its roster -- also employs prominent labor-relations attorney and former Hawaii GOP head Jared Jossem and Renton Nip, who served as state Land Use Commission chairman during the Waihee years, in its local office.
Former Attorney General Warren Price and his successor, Robert Marks, through their firm serve as outside counsels to Verner Liipfert and have conducted legal work for the estate.
To be sure, the legal work for the estate can be lucrative. According to its tax filings, the estate's nonprofit unit paid nearly $4.2 million in legal fees during the year ending June 30, 1996.
More than half, or $2.75 million, went to Cades Schutte, which does the legal work for the estate's leasehold conversions and some of its real-estate litigation.
Waihee's firm, Verner Liipfert, earned $844,245, while the Ching Yuen & Morikawa firm -- whose partners include longtime Waihee friend Bill Yuen -- was paid $580,603.
The estate paid McCorriston Miho $223,079 in legal fees for the fiscal year 1995 and another $235,050 for the 1993 fiscal year.
Randall Roth, University of Hawaii law professor and co-author of a scathing report that helped launch Bronster's investigation of the estate, criticized the large amount of legal fees that the estate pays each year -- especially since it is a nonprofit organization.
While the estate's attorneys are among the top in town, Roth believes that political connections probably play a key role in who gets selected for its legal work.
"This strikes me as an exorbitant amount of money for a charity to be spending on legal fees, especially when it has its own legal department," said Roth. "We can only wonder if the money is well-spent."
And the spending doesn't include legal bills wracked up by Bishop Estate's for-profit subsidiaries.
The estate declined to disclose the amount of legal fees that its for-profit units incur each year. But recent news reports said the estate spent $500,000 to defend an $86.7 million lawsuit that film producer Frederick Field filed in 1995 over soured real-estate investments on the mainland.
An estate subsidiary, Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center Inc., wracked up at least $500,000 in legal bills in the McKenzie Methane Corp. legal battle.
The estate sued the Houston-based natural gas company's founder Mike McKenzie in 1992, alleging that fraud and mismanagement led them to lose some $60 million in the venture.
The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1994 and was sold to the estate, which now says it has been able to recoup much of its losses in McKenzie Methane.
McKenzie denied the estate's fraud allegations, saying its hardball tactics have made his life a legal nightmare.
He said the estate wrongly accused him of stealing money from Hawaiian children and that the estate's attorneys hired private investigators -- two former FBI agents -- to harass him.
"It's been five years of hell," said McKenzie.
"They've used their money, power and influence to beat the heck out of me."
When Bobby Harmon filed a wrongful termination suit against Bishop Estate in February, he couldn't find a lawyer to take his case.
Suer of estate finds it
tough to hire a lawyer
The former president of the estate's in-house insurance company, P&C Insurance Co., was turned down by eight local law firms because they either did business with the estate or wanted to, said John Goemans, Harmon's attorney.
Some were just afraid to oppose them, he said.
"The reality is that it's virtually impossible to take on the estate," said Goemans.
Harmon sued the estate after the estate sue him for releasing confidential information.
The estate said Harmon was fired for cause and that the firing was upheld by a state Department of Labor review, which denied him unemployment benefits.
Documents released by Harmon contained false and defamatory allegations, the estate has also said.
A Circuit Court judge recently ruled that Harmon violated a court order not to disclose estate information. The court also said that Harmon did not act in bad faith since he was acting on advice of his lawyer.
For Goemans, the Harmon case underscores the estate's clout in Hawaii's legal community and the difficulties of opposing it. Goemans said his client has run up about $20,000 in legal bills.
"Few have the capability of resisting a $10 billion behemoth with an unlimited supply of lawyers who have a clear modus operandi of deluging opponents with paper," Goemans said.
By Rick Daysog, Star-Bulletin
Bishop Estate Archive