Race of the Year

First in a two-part series
Photos by Dan Lane

On a recent Tuesday, in an oceanfront suite at Kaua‘i Marriott at Kalapaki Beach, MidWeek Kaua‘i journalists Amanda C. Gregg and Coco Zickos, along with myself, interviewed incumbent County Prosecutor Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho and challenger Justin Kollar — separately. Likewise, they were photographed separately by Daniel Lane on the beautiful grounds of the Marriott.

Although each arrived on time and solo — we’d prepared to have campaign staff with the candidates — and each is an attorney, it is obvious they could not be more different as people, in their styles and their personalities. Gender is the least of their differences. No cookie-cutter candidates here. Voters on the Garden Isle have a definite choice.

It’s said that each has supporters in the highest levels of county politics, but the MidWeek Kaua‘i editorial board wanted to get beyond that to give readers a view of who the candidates are and what they intend to do if elected. Coco and Amanda came up with a list of questions, which we scripted, and my role was to ask follow-up questions. We made every effort to keep the process fair and equitable to both candidates. In some cases, a candidate’s response included information we’d planned to ask for later. Sometimes a candidate tried to ignore the question to say what they wanted to say. Both candidates’ responses have been edited for space — one interview lasted 55 minutes, the other an hour and 10 minutes. We also tried to avoid “softball” questions.

We hope that you’ll take some time to read over the interviews and to make up your own mind on which candidate offers the best future for Kaua‘i. Responses are presented in the order in which we interviewed the candidates, first Mr. Kollar, then Ms. Iseri-Carvalho. Because of follow-up questions, not all questions were asked of both candidates. In those cases, just the one response is quoted.

We’ll cover the remainder of the interviews in next week’s MidWeek Kaua‘i.

Before getting to the interviews, here are a couple of brief bios on each.

Justin Kollar is currently a deputy county attorney in Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho Jr.’s administration, and has provided legal services to the Kaua‘i Police Department and Civil Defense Agency. Kollar graduated cum laude from Boston University and earned his law degree from Suffolk University Law School. He began his law career in 2002 working for the city of Boston as a paralegal, and went on to become law clerk to justices in the Superior Court of Massachusetts in 2004, and assistant corporation counsel in 2005 for the city of Boston. He began his career in Hawaii in 2006 as a law clerk to Daniel R. Foley at the State of Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals. Following that, he came to Kaua‘i in 2008 to prosecute bench and jury trials in misdemeanor and felony cases as a deputy prosecuting attorney. In that post, he worked first under former Prosecutor Craig DeCosta, and later, Iseri-Carvalho. He was president of the Kaua‘i Bar Association in 2011 and currently serves on the Hawaii Supreme Court Bar of Examiners.

Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho has served as the county’s prosecuting attorney since running unopposed in 2008. Previously, Iseri-Carvalho served as a Kaua‘i County deputy prosecuting attorney from 1996 to 2004. She briefly left her post to be a Kaua‘i County Councilmember from 2004 to 2008. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science, and the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law, where she earned her juris doctorate. After graduating from law school, she was a law clerk for Judge Donald Tsukiyama and Herbert Shimabukuro and later served as a deputy public defender in Honolulu and Maui.

Why do you want to be prosecutor?

J.K.: My parents taught me when I was growing up that if you see a situation you can help make better, and you can help someone, you can do good things, you should do it. You can’t sit around and expect people to solve the world’s problems for you. The other thing they taught me is the value of service and giving back to the community and your profession, and doing what you can to leave the world a better place than you found it. Since I’ve been living on Kaua‘i, I’ve felt very taken in and blessed and humbled and honored at how people have treated me.

This is where I want to raise my family and where Sierra (fiancee) and I have our home, and we want to make sure it stays a safe place for generations to come. Being part of the criminal justice system here, I saw a really wonderful opportunity to run for this office, to come in and do some good things for the community. That’s why I’m running. I think we’ve got problems we can fix if we come together as a community, with our law enforcement, with our judiciary, and really address those things. I feel I have the energy and passion and vision to be an effective prosecutor.

S.I.-C.: I’ve been a prosecutor now for almost 12 years, and I see that the criminal system environment has definitely changed on our tiny island of Kaua‘i. We see where we used to have crimes of an assault or fistfight, we now see cases where they’ve escalated to using knives, machetes, even guns. Where we used to see a lot of marijuana cases, we’re seeing a lot of prescription meds and ice — Kaua‘i and Hawaii’s drug of choice. Because I’ve been doing it for 12 years, and I’ve also been a public defender for four years, I think that makes a difference in how we’re going to deal with these dramatic changes that are happening to our island, especially the people who are impacted. Before, we used to see a lot of home invasions, car invasions of tourists. That’s where criminals used to target: Ke‘e Beach, Polihale, Po‘ipu.

What we’re seeing now is a lot of the crimes are being targeted at seniors because a lot of them are still living their lifestyle where they don’t lock their doors and don’t lock their windows. And so we’ve engaged in a lot of community events for seniors, like elderly law presentations and the senior health fair … A lot of these changes really matter when you have an experienced prosecutor who’s been through that and also has talked to hundreds of defendants … So having all of this (experience) makes me believe I am the most qualified prosecutor to ensure that the community is safe.

Please explain where you were born and raised, and how that may or may not contribute to your job performance?

J.K.: That’s a good question and one I get a lot, as you can imagine. I’m from Allentown, Pa. My family was factory workers — steel mills, apparel factories. You know, blue-collar family, union family. They taught me not to complain about things, but just to get up and work hard. They struggled and sacrificed to make sure I had the opportunity to do things they didn’t have the chance to do. I wasn’t the first one to go to college, but the first one to go to a big four-year university, to go to law school, to really have the opportunity to reach for those goals. They gave up a lot for me to be able to do that, and that taught me the value of honoring those who came before you and doing everything you can to make them proud. But the values I was raised with — hard work, family, community — are values that I don’t think are unique to any particular place. So when I came here and started doing public service, I found the values I was raised with are the same values people are looking for here. People want to know their community is going to be safe, which is true here, which is true where I grew up, that they can go about their business and not be bothered by criminals, that they can raise their kids in a safe place. The town I grew up in has a lot of crime now.

So I’ve seen what drugs can do to a community. I’ve seen what crime can do to a community. And I think it comes from people who have a lack of hope or lack of opportunity. So those are things that also translate to Kaua‘i.

S.I.-C.: I was born and raised here on Kaua‘i. We grew up in Kapa‘a and I attended Kapa‘a Elementary School. I attended ninth grade at Kamehameha Schools and returned to Kapa‘a to graduate, and was the student body president there … I started the first violent crimes unit when I was first back here on Kaua‘i under Michael Soong, and we had discussed how horrific the sex assault (conviction) rates were, which was less than 20 percent. So, with the collaboration of a multi-disciplinary team that consisted of the YWCA, the prosecutor’s office, KPD, the Department of Human Services and the Attorney General’s office, family court division, we were able to create a legal medical protocol on sex assault cases, and created a sexual assault response team. I did a ton of sex assault cases back-to-back. I ended up taking all these cases to trial, and it was by winning these cases … and it’s very difficult to win a jury trial, because when you do a jury trial you have to convince all 12 people unanimously that this person committed this offense beyond a reasonable doubt. You need to have that connection with the jury to win those kinds of cases, and I believe that I have done that extremely successfully … And now I’m doing the parole hearings of people I convicted 12 years ago who got 20-year sentences … I think my background gives a lot of credence to connecting with the jurors.

Would there ever be a situation where you would be the lead attorney in court?

J.K.: Absolutely. The prosecutor is responsible for management, but I believe the prosecutor should have a court presence, a positive court presence. If they’re going to take cases, they should go and work on the cases, not just show up for a high-profile sentencing here and there, or show up when there is high drama on the calendar. But be there — it is just a smart management thing. You can see how the judges are acting, how the attorneys are behaving in court. You have to really have the heartbeat and dynamic because you are the manager, so you should do to court. Peter Carlisle (current Honolulu mayor and former Honolulu prosecutor) went to court a lot because he would be there in the trenches with (his deputies). And that is important for a manager to show that they’re willing to work hard like the staff is being asked to do. I don’t see it happening now. To be frank, I don’t see that kind of presence at the courthouse. To me, being the prosecutor is about more than going to conferences and seminars and public events. It’s about doing the people’s business in court, and to do that effectively you need to go to the courthouse. You don’t need to spend all your time there, but you do need to be a presence. Otherwise, the judges and attorneys start to wonder where is this person?

S.I.-C.: This is exactly why it’s important to have the experience. When I first started, I did everything. I did all the sex assaults, I did all the murders. We had only five-and-a-half attorneys when I started, so I was in court every single day for the first year and a half to two years … I’m still very involved in the litigation aspect of the most serious types of cases. I also provide a lot of guidance to the attorneys. So on any given day if you came to our office, you’d have the drug attorney coming in asking for advice, sex-assault cases likewise. So on a daily basis, I’m there as an experienced attorney providing advice to persons who are doing career criminals, sex assaults, robberies, whether we’re going to charge a person with an enhanced penalty or not — all of these decisions are put forth to me. When we do plea offers on every case, they come through me. I read every single felony case that comes through that office, so I know every felony case and who are the witnesses. A lot of times we have witnesses in one case who are defendants in another, and defendants in one case are witnesses in another, so it becomes very complicated … A lot of times, the cases coming to me, I prepared them, I prepared the complaint, I prepared the felony information charging, I prepare them questions to report in court, I prepare the argument to argue against an evidentiary ruling. So I’ve done a lot of those kinds of things, and then they take it to court and they present it. So when you’re talking about how much time I spend in court and how much is court preparation, a lot of the work that many of the attorneys put forth is work that has been discussed with me or prepared with me.

Collaboration with other entities, including KPD, will be key in successfully prosecuting cases. How would you work with other entities to bring criminals to justice? How would you describe your relationship with them and how would you collaborate with them and other entities if elected?

J.K.: An important part of being a successful prosecutor is good relationships with law enforcement, and I’ve worked hard in my time here to build those relationships. And my relationship with law enforcement on Kaua‘i is excellent. We’ve got an excellent relationship going back to the time when I prosecuted felony drug cases and vehicular homicide cases here on Kaua‘i. They know if they’ve got an idea, they can call me any time, that I will take the call, and that I will do anything to help. Likewise I have trust in them, that when I call they will respond, and we will have an open and honest and frank conversation. You can never promise you will make arrests or that you’re going to crack a particular case, but what I can promise is that I will work with KPD, and with the Department of Justice, with the FBI, with outside agencies that have tremendous resources … There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle. My style, focus, since I’ve been in the criminal justice system, is building relationships, because you can’t survive without good relationships.

You’ve been both a public defender and a prosecutor. Those are very different roles — which one suits you best?

S.I.-C.: For me, being a prosecutor gives you a lot more control over the case. When you’re a public defender, you’re at the whim of the prosecutor, who decides what the plea offer is going to be, and they offer you whether or not your person is going to rehabilitation, etc. They are the ones in the driver’s seat and decide if they are going to reduce the charge. A public defender accepts a plea or doesn’t, that’s basically their role. There is some negotiation, but you’re basically in the driver’s seat as a prosecutor. As a public defender, you have absolutely no control except that you have your card in a sense dealt to you, because you don’t have to put on any evidence — the burden of proof is solely on the prosecutor — and in every case a defense attorney could just sit there, and nobody would know whether he’s doing a good job or a bad job, because a lot of times they recommend their defendant not make a statement or not testify at trial.

What would you do to retain staff if elected prosecutor?

J.K.: That’s a very important issue in our prosecutor’s office … You’ve got police who stay in their jobs for 20, 25, 30 years. You need to build a team of attorneys who are going to be career prosecutors. Judges on this island, and defense attorneys, have been here a long time. You’ve got to have deputy prosecutors who can go in there and stand toe-to-toe … You have to make them feel like they can put down roots here, which means treating them well in the office, and making them understand as long as they’re working hard, they’re going to be supported, they’re going to get the tools they need to succeed. The prosecutor is the team leader, but we all report to the community. It can’t be a “my way or the highway” type of situation. You’ve got to bring them in, mentor them. When Craig De Costa brought me here to Kaua‘i, he mentored me. Al Castillo has taught me so much in my time with him. You need to make your attorneys want to make you look good. They’re not going to look good, they’re not going to want to stay here. It takes a couple years to settle into a place like this. When you’ve got a new attorney coming in, it’s not just a question of paying them a lot of money. It’s a question of providing an office atmosphere that makes them feel like, OK, they’ve got to go to court and deal with criminals and defense attorneys, but when they come in the office they know they’re with their team, that they are going to be supported, that if they have questions or problems, they can go to their colleagues, or supervisor, or they can come to me, and they’re not going to get their heads chopped off basically. Nothing I say should be construed as slighting anyone working in that office, because they have some excellent, bright talent in that office. But we need to build that into a core that will stand the test of time for years to come.

Four years ago in December 2008, you had seasoned deputy prosecutors who had been doing the job for years, and had institutional knowledge (Lori Wada, Maunakea Trask, Rosa Flores, Tracy Murakami), attorneys who had been through the fire, who had done trials, who had significant ties to Kaua‘i and really were willing to put their heart and souls into their work. So what happened, who can say? But those are the types of people we need to have in our prosecutor’s office, who are going to make it 15, 20, 30 years. The person at the top of the office, the prosecutor, can have all the courtroom experience in the world, but they’re not the ones in court every day. So you’ve got to build that team, which consists of about a dozen attorneys with a $4 million budget.

You want to have a core group of attorneys, and to me the question isn’t where were they born, but what are they going to do for the community. You want attorneys who were born and raised here who are going to feel comfortable coming and working at the prosecutor’s office. Right now you don’t have attorneys who were born and raised on Kaua‘i working in the prosecutor’s office other than Shaylene. That doesn’t mean you don’t have attorneys from the Mainland throughout Kaua‘i, but it is a question of whoever it is, wherever they were born, helping them feel like they’re going to spend the next 20, 30 years of life here, and that they’re invested in the community.

S.I.-C.: One of the things that I’ve tried to do is keep an experienced staff. We’ve got John Murphy with 30-plus years’ experience; Sam Jajich with 20-plus years’ experience; Lisa Arin with 15 years; Melinda Mendes with 24 years of experience. The felony cases are the most serious cases, and you need to have an experienced staff in order to do that. You need people who are dedicated to the type of work because it is physically draining and also emotionally taxing — that’s the kind of work you do …

Turnover in our office is not higher than average. Keith Kaneshiro (Honolulu’s current prosecutor) had 50 attorneys leave his office in his term. There have been about 13 people who have left (here) for various reasons, and I think it’s unfair to clump them all together. Some people were terminated, some people left to move to Honolulu because their mother had cancer, two other attorneys moved to the Big Island because that’s where their family is from … Most of the attorneys that are no longer here are not here because of dishonest reasons. Most (dismissals) came with consultation with KPD. We’ve had numerous issues with attorneys not following policy, dismissing cases. I had one attorney we later learned went in and dismissed a whole sting operation case — four cases dismissed with prejudice with no authority. I had my opponent dismiss three cases with absolutely no authority, one was a sex assault, Class A felony case, which was a cocaine trafficking. I had a sex assault case with a confession; we also had a case with a prominent person in the community who was charged with abuse, where the instructions were given not to dismiss the case because the person had already had a prior abuse, but that case was dismissed without my authority. I had another attorney doing abuse cases, and I received a letter, again from KPD, informing me of multiple cases that had been dismissed that they felt were supposed to have been prosecuted. We looked through those cases, we felt they were right. So I believe when people overstep or abuse their power, especially in a prosecutor’s office, when you go in and dismiss cases that the police have done extensive investigations on, I think there is a problem. I think when you have a Class A felony that you’re dismissing, especially when the person is from California, where we’re never, ever going to find him again, and this was a Class A felony cocaine-trafficking case, and you dismiss it at the preliminary hearing stage, I think that’s a problem. When you’re specifically instructed to take a sex-assault case because it has a confession and this person has a 40-arrest record with multiple, numerous convictions, I think that’s a problem. I think you should be reprimanded. I think it’s a problem because you’re not working in the best interest of the county or the best interest of your victim. When we have complaints by the defense attorneys telling me that my prosecutors in their two weeks that they’re contemplating leaving had come in and dismissed a bunch of cases — I even had a judge come to see me and tell me the deputies are dismissing cases that should-n’t be and are recommending lower penalties that shouldn’t be — their friends are defense attorneys, I believe, and they’re trying to curry favors with them. I had a person come in and dismiss three abuse cases in the last two weeks of court, and they’re all good friends now, they all formed a defense bar. I had an attorney come in and dismiss three abuse cases when they were set three months down the line for good friends, and he was leaving in two weeks … And all of these are televised, so we have DVDs from all of these cases if people want to look at the files of all of the cases that have gotten dismissed. It’s unfortunate that there has been this misperception.

If elected, how would you safeguard your department against lawsuits/complaints, which as we know are a burden on the taxpayer?

J.K.: Without getting into the details of any specific cases, litigation is expensive, but it also is very costly to the community in terms of the chaos and the upheaval it can create. It leads to nothing happy for the office. It causes trouble within the office; it causes people within the community to ask questions and be less sure about what’s going on in their government. I can tell you from my perspective, I was raised to treat people the way I would want to be treated myself. My employees and I are all part of a team, and it is in all our best interests to all remember kind of that we are working for the public and for the community, and it is important for us to work together. So my management style is very collaborative. If there is a problem, we bring people together, we talk it out. If there is an issue, my door is open. I want to be approachable, and I want my employees to feel like they can come to me, that they will be listened to and their concerns will be heard and addressed fairly. I think that it is something HGEA realized when they endorsed my candidacy. Leadership does mean building a team that works well together in the office.

I believe very strongly that every employee is entitled to a workplace that is free from harassment, free from discrimination, and made up of teammates and colleagues. And that has been my experience in offices I’ve worked in the past. It is my experience in the office of the county attorney right now, and if we have a problem, we come together as a team and address it. And if I’ve got a problem that I don’t think I can talk about with my other colleagues, I know that I can go to my boss, and we can discuss it and resolve it fairly. I believe in the value of listening. If an employee comes to me with a complaint, I look at it and say, “What do we have to do to fix this problem?” And we go out and fix it.

S.I.-C.: County money needs to be looked at as your own money. A lot of people don’t have jobs; a lot of people lost their homes, so it’s very serious for me to look at the budget and about how we handle the operations of our office … With these EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaints, one of the concerns we had was that we were not consulted on these cases, and that’s been a major problem because the county attorney’s office, because of the relationship currently, and I believe because the county attorneys support my opponent, we have not received the type of effective representation that we should have. I think there are always two sides to the story, (but) we are not able to present our side. I learned about the settlements in the newspaper. A staff member called me. There was no discussion in my office regarding the two settlements that surfaced in the paper, and that’s unfortunate. A lot of these kinds of claims, we had done our own investigation, which we are required to do when there is a complaint in the office. I can tell you one of the complaints never even came to the office. The EEOC complaint never surfaced in our office, and the claims that were made were never brought to our attention, so it’s difficult to defend against these claims. We’ve made numerous requests to the county attorney’s office to provide their investigative files, numerous requests to obtain the files and the evidence and the investigations that they’ve done. The type of information they provided to the County Council to obtain settlement, they refused to provide us with that. We’re supposed to be the client. When you settle a case, we’re supposed to know about it.

And it’s not just our office; the police department also has had a difficult time obtaining services from the County Attorney’s Office. I believe that that’s the problem with our opponent. Because of the fracture between the County Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney as well as the relationship with the police department — the deteriorated relationship with KPD because the police chief has already gone on record saying that he does not trust the County Attorney’s Office or my opponent. So it would be very difficult for the community to see the kinds of strides both the police department and I have made. The relationship between me and the police department is excellent. The relationship between me and the state office is excellent. The relationship between me and the federal officials we work with, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the DA. When I call them on the phone, they’re there. The collaboration between our offices now is unseen in any history of the KPD and the prosecuting attorney. It was brought on when the mayor exceeded his boundaries and took power away from the police chief without any authority to do so, and it was at that point the relationship really started to falter. I believe, with the upcoming election, it’s extremely unfair for us to get any kind of decent representation when we have the County Attorney’s Office (Al Castillo) having a bumper sticker of my opponent, contributing $600 in campaign funds.

We also have multiple pictures of him smiling, holding signs.

So it’s no secret that his intention is to do anything possible, in my opinion, to mar (my) office’s representation and the history of what we’ve had beginning back in 2010 when he pushed for Justin to run against me. We’ve had the worst relationship ever with the County Attorney’s Office, not only with all these claims and no consultation — and it’s very disheartening because the County Attorney’s Office should be working in the best interest of the county, which is all the agencies. But then you have no consultation on settlement claims, and you have no consultation in getting the expertise of the county attorney. And they’ve had multiple issues, not only with the police chief, and I think that that relationship has been fractured severely. But if you look at the amount of money that there has been allocated just in the past year for the county attorney’s special counsel because they have these conflicts, it has been almost $1.7 million in special counsel. They’ve hired special counsel for the auditor’s office, the planning department, the public works department, the prosecuting office, KPD, the Board of Ethics, the police commission. So if you look at all the money that the County Attorney’s Office has expended, it’s humongous, it’s more than $1 million in a year on special counsel because of the conflict that it has with all of the department heads. That is a shame.

That is where, to me, the investigation should be concentrated. What I believe happened with the EEOC complaint, when they put in the conciliation agreement that this is hereby giving you notice that anything in this claim shall be publicly disbursed, how could that be anything that could be supportive of our office without us having any input, and not discussing any of these items with us? The last discussion I had with them was in 2010 about the case when I first got the complaint. I believe that we have a lot of overwhelming evidence that the claims with Erin Wilson and Shannon Weigel are not legitimate, but we were not consulted. I still haven’t seen the settlement. When we asked for it, the County Attorney’s Office asked us why, because they said it was on the council’s agenda, but the county attorney doesn’t even know that the council agenda says Jane Doe, so you’d never know who these claims are for. And why wouldn’t you tell us? We’re an email away. For two years you don’t tell us anything, nothing about the negotiations? The only claim that was settled with our input was when one of the people got $0. We were told to settle the claim. They wanted to settle for like $8,000 to $10,000, and we said, “That’s ridiculous, we did nothing wrong.” And in the end, when we walked out of that mediation session, there was an agreement for $0, so I think that became public that there were four EEOC complaints and one was $0. That was the only one we participated in.

Is this your first time running for public office, and how has it been going so far?

J.K.: This community is so full of interesting people with a lot of experience and a lot of life to share. It has been a lot of hard work, there have been a lot of long nights, it can be stressful. But I have learned so much from it. I’m walking a lot of neighborhoods and knocking on doors. I’m used to it being a little more recreational. And I look forward to being able to hike more and all those wonderful things (after the election).

The last time you were running for prosecutor, you were unopposed. How is it different this year?

S.I.-C.: When you run unopposed, you can prepare for your moving into the office. So I was able to do interviews back in July as opposed to waiting until later on to look at the cases. I had an input because I was also on the County Council at that time. Here, we’re very worried because we have murder first-degree trial that was set for Sept. 17 that we had been working months on, so there is almost little or no time to prepare for campaigning … There is absolutely no hard case that we have not prosecuted.