January 26, 2022

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Chad Blair: A Memoir By A Former Hawaii AG Fills In Some Holes In Recent State History

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I’ve read more than my fair share of biographies and memoirs on Hawaii political types, usually written about or by past governors and current and former members of Congress. It’s part of my job to read them, and also my interest.

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But “From the Desk of The Attorney General: A Memoir” by David Louie is the first book by a Hawaii AG that I can recall. It is also — to my genuine surprise — a very good read and recommended for people who want to better understand the workings (and too often dysfunction) of our local government.

The 178-page book from Legacy Isle Publishing, a Watermark Publishing of Honolulu imprint, delivers on the book sleeve’s promise to reveal behind-the-scenes details about what happened during Louie’s roughly four years (2011-2014) working for Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

For example, I covered the Capitol during those years, but I never could figure out exactly why Abercrombie withdrew the name of his first nominee for the director of the Department of Health.

Louie does not reveal the candidate’s name — “I kept his name out of the book primarily because it was not absolutely necessary,” Louie told me Tuesday by phone from San Francisco, where he is with family for the holidays.

But he confirmed that it was Neal Palafox, as any Google search would show. For a new administration to withdraw the name of such an important Cabinet pick from state Senate consideration was, as Civil Beat said at the time, “a major embarrassment.”

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David Louie on the job as Hawaii attorney general in November 2014. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2014

While Hawaii News Now reported at that time that it may have been tied to a medical reimbursement fraud investigation, Louie provides the back story. It centered on a complaint filed by former Attorney General Margery Bronster, and it would likely not reflect well on Palafox.

“Even if the nominee had a good and compelling explanation, the evidence looked quite convincing and could be spun negatively against both him and the governor, if the governor chose to stand by him,” he explains.

Because the complaint in the whistleblower lawsuit was under seal and confidential, Abercrombie could not publicly comment on the matter nor even explain to Palafox why he was being dropped.

Later, Louie learned that there was no finding of wrongdoing on the part of the nominee, who headed the medical group that was the subject of the billings. But that’s politics.

“Dealing with these accusations was my initiation into how to approach decision-making on issues that had both legal and political consequences,” Louie writes. “When there are winners and losers, someone was always going to be unhappy or disappointed. But as long as I made my decisions based upon principled reasons, then I could live with myself and accept the consequences for my actions.”

Unethical Legislators

There are more revelations like this one, including on why it took Senate Judiciary Chair Clayton Hee so long to confirm Louie’s own appointment. (I covered those hearings, too — click here and here.)

“Senator Hee was a longtime legislator with a reputation as an intelligent and clever bully who would push his weight around to achieve his goals,” Louie writes.

I won’t say more, except to say that Hee did not get what he wanted from Louie.

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The cover features a closeup of David Louie’s historic, koa-made desk when he was in office. 

Asked about that today, Louie told me, “He’s an interesting guy. We initially crossed swords and he was really pissed at me. Then I had a detente with him because we had to deal with him on numerous occasions, including working out environmental issues regarding Turtle Bay.”

“From the Desk of The Attorney General” is not about score-settling. But Louie is unsparing about unethical legislators — like the two senators who tried to push through a gut-and-replace measure on gambling. Folks who follow the Legislature can probably guess who those senators were, but Louie does not reveal that information.

He also does not name the senator who wanted the AG’s help in eviscerating the state ethics law “to allow legislators to accept unlimited amounts of food and drink, even a container truck full of steaks, produce and liquor, without breaking the laws.”

That did not happen, of course.

What Louie’s memoir shows is someone who was naive about politics but wanting to do the right thing. He gave up a lucrative legal practice to take a job that paid far less in order to run the largest law firm in the state with 185 attorneys, hundreds of staff, a $70 million budget and the responsibility to provide legal counsel “to everyone who worked for the state, from the governor to the guys sweeping up debris in the streets.”

But the experience turned out to be “the best job for me — very satisfying,” he told me.

His experience is also relevant today. The very same types of issues — e.g., Native Hawaiian rights, chemical spills, over-tourism, collapsing infrastructure, consumer protection, internet safety, endangered species — are still with us.

Rolling Joints

Louie, 70, was born in Oakland, Calif. His book covers his upbringing in an immigrant family, to his election as the nation’s first Chinese-American AG, to his efforts to stay on in the administration of Gov. David Ige, who clobbered Abercrombie in the 2014 primary.

The former governor comes off quite well in Louie’s book, which gives him credit for accomplishments like calling the special legislative session that led to same-sex marriage being legalized in Hawaii in 2013. (Of note: Clayton Hee took a leading role in getting the legislation passed.)

“The man has his faults and his critics, and he wasn’t able to get re-elected for a variety of reasons, but I really enjoyed serving with him and I thought he made some tough calls,” Louie says about his former boss.

The former AG and former Gov remain friends, so much so that Abercrombie, 83, moderated the interview with Louie on his book at October’s Hawaii Book and Music Festival forum.

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Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie moderated a Hawaii Book and Music Festival discussion with his former employee and the new book in October. Screenshot/2021

There are too many things in the book to share with you here, but I will reveal this one: Did you know that Louie met Stevie Wonder as part of the so-called “Wonder Blunder” concert fiasco at UH?

I particularly credit the author for his understanding and explanation of Native Hawaiian issues regarding the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. They are complicated and informed by long histories, but legal controversies involving the agencies during Louie’s tenure required that he get up to speed.

There are also plenty of humorous episodes. Louie writes about the time that Civil Beat reported the AG testified that “an ounce of marijuana contains sixty joints.” At issue was a bill proposing the decriminalizing of pakalolo.

Louie was mortified that he might have been wrong. (Civil Beat actually reported that Louie said 56 joints). But we also reported that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said the figure was not off base, depending on the weed and the joints.

“What did I learn from this little episode? I learned to make darn sure that I was comfortable with any testimony that went out,” he writes.

Today, Louie works for Kobayashi Sugita & Goda where he focuses on commercial and construction defect litigation, liability insurance and government relations and procurement. A registered lobbyist, he has represented Airbnb and currently lobbies for Meta Platforms (i.e., Facebook) and GEICO.

Not surprisingly, the firm is politically connected, donating to top Hawaii Democrats including U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, Reps. Kai Kahele and Ed Case and the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

Louie, who no longer wears eyeglasses following corrective surgery, does not expect to return to politics, barring an unexpected opportunity. “I am not looking for anything, and I have commitments now,” he said.

But he does hope his memoir will inspire others to get involved in government service.

“Many people just don’t understand government — people get so turned off — but it is so important to get involved,” he said. “Maybe by lifting the curtain to look at what I did might encourage them to participate in public service. I would encourage them to do that.”

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