Speaker Emeritus Rep. Joe Souki is stepping down as a result of sexual harassment claims made against him.
But he says he’s only doing it to prevent a long and painful process.
The woman who initially accused the 86-year-old lawmaker also spoke out Wednesday. She says since then, several other women came forward, claiming they were also sexually assaulted by Souki.
Souki has been a state lawmaker representing Maui for 36 years.
A complaint was filed by Rachael Wong, a former director for the Department of Human Services.
Souki served as House of Representatives speaker at the time.
“He made inappropriate comments specific to my appearance and an inappropriate request for physical contact that exceeded the traditional greetings we typically exchange in Hawaii,” said Wong.
She says it happened three years ago inside Souki’s office. As the director of DHS, she was afraid that the funding and the work would be jeopardized if she reported it.
After Wong filed her complaint, the ethics commission said they received similar allegations of unwanted kissing, touching, and sexual language by Souki from several other women.
“I went and kissed her cheek, and that’s all. I stood up and kissed her cheek. At that time, she did not say or do anything opposing to that, but I initiated it,” said Souki.
According to the state ethics commission, during its investigation Souki agreed to wrongdoing.
In the settlement, the commission says Souki touched and kissed more than one woman inappropriately, and the contact exceeded the boundaries of the customary aloha kiss.
The settlement also said he made sexual comments on the women’s physical appearance.
Souki still says he never did any of those things, but he wanted to avoid a long legal battle that would hurt his accusers, his family, and his colleagues at the State Capitol.
“I don’t do those things. Again, if I acted inappropriately, it was not in a manner that I was aware of,” he said.
Wong says the settlement speaks for itself. She has no plans to file a lawsuit and would like to focus her efforts on encouraging others with similar experiences to talk about it.
“Empower people to come out and talk about everything, men, women, children from all genders. I mean really this is something that we have not talked about in our community,” Wong said.
The 84-year-old Souki was first elected to the state house of representatives in 1982 and served as house speaker from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2013 to 2017.
The ethics commission resolution says that “Souki likely violated the Fair Treatment Law (HRS § 84-13),” and required the following in their settlement:
- Issuing this Resolution of Investigation;
- Requiring Respondent Souki to resign his position as a member of the House of Representatives, effective no later than March 30, 2018;
- Requiring Respondent Souki to issue a public apology for his conduct;
- Requiring Respondent Souki to pay an administrative penalty of $5,000 to the State of Hawaii; and
- Requiring Respondent Souki to agree not to seek or accept any public office for a period of two years.
Statement from Rep. Joe Souki:
“On March 30, 2018 I will resign my position as an elected member of Hawaii’s House of Representatives. For over half a century I have had the high privilege and honor of faithfully serving not only my constituents on Maui, but all of the people of the state of Hawaii. My political life began as an officer and precinct chairman on Maui in 1966. Over the years I was honored by being a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention, a member of the Hawaii State Legislature since 1982, Speaker of the House from 1993 to 1999 and Speaker Emeritus from 2000 to 2012.
In all my years of public service I have attempted to serve with honor and dignity. I have championed the rights to all without regard to race, ethnicity or gender. I’ve learned in the last few weeks that certain women have complained to the Hawaii State Ethics Committee accusing me of inappropriate and unwelcomed conduct. That conduct included ‘touching’ and ‘kissing’ more than one woman inappropriately. I am told that the conduct complained of occurred between three and eight years ago.
I have absolutely no memory of ever acting inappropriately with any woman at any time as a member of the House or in a private setting.
I am greatly saddened that something I did was misunderstood and believed to be inappropriate conduct. I have always been a fighter. I have fought to remedy injustices that affect our citizens’ everyday lives. I have never avoided standing up for what I believed to be a just cause.
As to the allegations currently filed against me, I have made the difficult decision to avoid a media circus by stepping down without a public confrontation with my accusers. I do not intend to have my wife and family agonized through public hearings before the ethics committee or elsewhere. I do not want my colleagues in the legislature to waste their valuable time in deciding where the truth lies and what sanctions against me, if any, are appropriate. I will not force my accusers to be examined publicly by my attorney or others about what they perceived was my wrongful conduct.
I apologize to the women that believe I treated them in any unwanted and inappropriate manner. At the age of 86 this was to be my last year of service to the people of Hawaii. I have agreed to resign before the end of the current session. In conclusion, I can safely say to everyone who supported me in politics, or as a friend, I have always strived to conduct myself in a respectful manner befitting my office. I have never intentionally violated the trust, confidence and integrity placed on me by the people.
I thank everyone who has shared my life with me as a public servant. Aloha.”
House Speaker Scott K. Saiki released the following statement about the State Ethics Commission’s settlement agreement with Speaker Emeritus Joseph M. Souki:
“As you know, the State Ethics Commission announced that it has reached a settlement agreement with Representative Joseph M. Souki concerning allegations of workplace harassment.
“Although it was not a signatory to the settlement agreement, the House of Representatives concurs with the settlement agreement and will abide by its terms.
“It is regrettable that a legislative career that spanned 36 years is ending in such a manner. As a legislator, Representative Souki always put his constituents first. Maui will lose an able and courageous advocate.
“The House of Representatives takes a zero tolerance approach to workplace harassment, no matter the power or influence of the accused.
“The House takes workplace harassment matters very seriously.
“We have already increased training for House members and staff.
“As many other institutions are already doing nationwide, we will conduct a comprehensive review of our workplace policies. The objective is to ensure that the House is able to receive, investigate and adjudicate complaints in a timely and vigilant manner. We will also explore other means to ensure that people feel respected and safe in the workplace.”