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Wednesday, November 22, 2000

AG’s office should pause
before pursuing Wong

Bullet The issue: A state judge has dismissed former Bishop Estate trustee Richard Wong in connection with an alleged kickback scheme.

Bullet Our view: The state Attorney General's Office should not pursue charges against Wong without clear and admissible evidence of a crime.

CRIMINAL perjury charges against former Bishop Estate trustee Richard "Dickie" Wong have been dismissed by a judge because of improper grand jury testimony. The charges can be refiled, but the state Attorney General's Office should make sure that it can proceed properly before doing so. The office's track record on Bishop Estate-related criminal cases suggests otherwise.

Wong, his former wife and his brother-in-law, local developer Jeffrey Stone, were indicted in April 1999 in an alleged kickback scheme involving the estate. Wong was charged with theft for allegedly receiving $155,000 from Stone in exchange for preferential treatment on the purchase of a Bishop Estate condominium in Hawaii Kai. Stone and his partners acquired the project for $21.9 million in 1995. Wong and Stone deny any kickback and say Bishop Estate made money on the deal.

Circuit Judge Michael Town dismissed those charges in June 1999. The judge ruled that testimony by Richard Frunzi, Stone's former attorney, violated attorney-client privilege. Stone and former Bishop Estate trustee Henry Peters, who allegedly received a kickback from Stone, were indicted again for the alleged kickback, but Town dismissed those charges because of procedural flaws before the grand jury.

Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Goya then obtained an indictment in December charging Wong and Stone with perjury before the grand jury. Town ruled this week that the Attorney General's Office improperly elicited opinionated grand jury testimony from two state investigators that prejudiced Wong's right to a fair proceeding.

The indictments undoubtedly have reflected Goya's belief that Wong and Stone broke the law, but bungled grand jury procedures have kept the merits of case from being considered at trial. Goya says he will recommend that the two men be reindicted on the same perjury charges so he can try again to get it right before a grand jury.

At some point, the state's attorneys had to determine whether there was admissible evidence that Wong and Stone were involved in a kickback. In seeking a perjury indictment, they apparently decided there was not. Having been rejected in their attempt to present evidence of the corollary crime of perjury, the Attorney General's Office should think twice before deciding to venture further.

Florida recount

Bullet The issue: The Florida Supreme Court has ordered manual recounts to proceed in the state's presidential election.

Bullet Our view: Republicans should avoid an extreme reaction that could result in a battle in Congress.

FLORIDA'S Supreme Court decision was a major boost to Vice President Al Gore in his hope of overcoming Gov. George W. Bush in the race for Florida's critical electoral vote total. Bush's victory is in some jeopardy, caused by his attorneys' overconfidence about their interpretation of Florida's voting laws.

Although the high court set a Monday morning deadline for turning in the vote totals to the secretary of state, the dispute is expected to extend well into December and perhaps beyond.

Gore's campaign asked for recounts in four Democratic-leaning counties that they felt would pay dividends. Indeed, partial recounts in those counties produced more than 200 Gore votes. Bush's margin is less than 1,000 statewide.

If the remaining vote count includes "dimpled chads," those in which the area to be punched out remained attached to the ballot, Gore has a strong chance of overtaking Bush. The Supreme Court's 42-page opinion offered no guidelines to county officials about whether such dented ballots were to be regarded as indications of the voters' intention to cast votes.

Gore's attorneys pointed to an Illinois decision that they should be counted. Bush spokesman James baker cited a decision by a Florida official in a previous election discounting them. They could be an issue to be debated at some later point.

The Democrat-dominated Supreme Court summarized its opinion by saying that "the right of people to cast their votes is the paramount concern overriding all others."

Gore claimed to be the advocate of those averages voters but could not conceal his delight about the court victory and the chance that it will ultimately translate into his election.

"I don't know whether George Bush or I will prevail," Gore said, "but we do know that our democracy is the winner tonight."

An angry former Secretary of State Baker didn't think so. He alleged that the Supreme Court has "changed the rules" of the election and "invented a new system for counting the election results," in defiance of the Florida statute. Baker suggested that a special session of the state's Republican legislature could be called to set the justices straight.

That could involve legislators naming 25 electors to cast votes for Bush in the Electoral College if the recount ended in Gore's favor. That, in turn, could result in a showdown in Congress, but hopefully the issue will be settled by cooler heads before then.

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