Wednesday, December 24, 2003
The jurist failed to disclose long-held family property where crimes were alleged
By Debra Barayuga
The Hawaii Supreme Court has issued a rare public censure to a now-retired district judge for failing to disclose his wife's financial interests while he was on the bench.
Chief Justice Ronald Moon issued the order of public censure Monday, nearly 3 1/2 years after the Commission on Judicial Conduct began investigating District Judge David L. Fong's financial interests. Fong retired in October 2002.
The inquiry apparently began in July 2000 after a series of Star-Bulletin articles.
In its order, the high court also found that Fong was "at least aware" of alleged criminal activity at a property owned by his wife, Connie Yon Fong.
"Respondent Fong's conduct ... cast his judicial office into disrepute," violated financial disclosure requirements and the judicial code that deals with public perception, the order said. However, "it appears that Respondent Fong was highly respected and performed his duties ably and conscientiously during the time he served as a per diem and full-time judge of the District Court of the First Circuit," Moon said.
Under court rules, judges are required to disclose relevant interests held by themselves, spouses or dependent children.
The Star-Bulletin had reported in July 2000 that hostess bars accused of prostitution and drug-dealing were located in a Sheridan Street building owned and managed by Connie Fong between 1991 and 1998. The building, purchased by Connie Fong in 1991, was not reported by her husband until three years later.
David Fong had told the Star-Bulletin that he was unaware of illegal activities occurring in the building while his wife owned it. Records showed, however, that he represented one of the bars in a Liquor Commission proceeding after it was cited at least twice for allowing sexual contact between customers and employees.
At the time, Fong was serving as part-time judge and was in private practice specializing in liquor license issues.
Gerald Sekiya, chairman of the commission for the past nine years, said he could not recall the last time the high court has issued a public reprimand. "Very few if any get this far because we have very good judges and allegations of misconduct very seldom reach a level of seriousness that involves contested hearings," Sekiya said.
The public censure does not prohibit Fong from serving on the bench if called on, he said.
Had Fong still been a judge, he could have faced other potential sanctions such as suspension or removal from the bench, Sekiya said. Public censures are reprimands and are the lowest public sanction issued to a judge who violates the codes of judicial conduct, but it is higher than a private sanction, he said.
Sekiya defended the 3 1/2 year process leading to the public censure as "reasonable," since the subject involved complicated transactions that occurred over a decade or more.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against Fong based on their investigation in the fall of 2002, about the time that Fong was seeking retention. His term was to expire in November 2002. Fong subsequently withdrew his application for retention and retired on Oct. 31, 2002.