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Ethics Complaint “Politically motivated” says Councilman Couch

Councilmember Don Couch (Photo: S. Halas)
Council member Don Couch is the target of an ethics violation complaint filed by Haiku resident Sean Lester with the Maui County Board of Ethics. In documents received on Sept. 23, 2016, Lester alleges Couch purchased a home in Waikapu and a condo in Kihei in 2007. He states that Couch did not meet the “affordable income criteria” for the condo and implies that Couch improperly received and failed to disclose rental income derived from the house.

Couch, an incumbent council member running for re-election to the South Maui seat, is in a tight race facing challenger Kelly King. The charges come at a time when it would be impossible for the Board of Ethics to decide on the validity of Lester’s claims before the November election.

“This is a politically motivated attack. It is without merit,” Couch said in an interview today with MauiWATCH. ”It concerns activities that mostly took place a decade ago. During the period in question, 2007, I was neither an officer nor employee of the County of Maui. So I have to wonder what jurisdiction the County Board of Ethics will have over this complaint?”

“Though I could say this matter is no one else’s business,” he continued, “I am elected to public office, and even if the board chooses not to review this matter I will respond to protect the integrity of the office I hold.” (Couch served on the Board of Ethics from 1998 to 2002, and was chair 2001 – 2002.)

According to Couch, he and his wife Leslie, “signed a purchase contract for our Kai Makani condo in January of 2005. At the time, we qualified for an affordable home in the 140% median income range.”

“In 2006, I became Deputy Director of Planning and went out of the (income) range. I received written confirmation from the Department of Housing and Human Concerns that as long as I qualified for the affordable home at the time I signed the purchase contract, then I was OK – they don’t punish people for advancing in their careers.”

The condo transaction was completed in May of 2007 when Couch was no longer working for the County of Maui.

In March of 2007 (while the condo transaction was still being processed), Couch said “personal issues” prompted the couple to buy a market rate house at Waikapu Gardens using his wife projected earnings as part of the basis for obtaining the loan. “We were in a dilemma,” he said, “because we were unable to get out of the Kai Makani (condo) contract without losing a substantial sum, so we purchased the Kai Makani condo unit as well.”

“Very soon after, we decided to make Kai Makani our home,” he said. “Unfortunately, the real estate market crashed and we could not sell the Waikapu house for what was owed. We rented the house out at a very affordable rate to a family of five – and at a large monthly loss to us – until we could sell it at a break-even price.”

The property was sold in August 2016 for $669,000

As for reporting the rental income, Couch said, “It is indeed reported. It was not specifically broken out as rental income, but combined with my wife’s business income. We have reported the rental income on all of our tax returns and GET returns as well.”

Details of Lester’s complaint were forwarded to MauiWATCH by [email protected] That domain name is registered to Beth Savitt of Haiku. Savitt was identified in a Google search as president of SHAKA, a local political action group best known for their anti-GMO activities.

Neither Lester nor Savitt responded to emails requesting comment.

Turning to his income and political career, Couch said he presently earns $76,000 a year as a member of the council and that his income was considerably less when he was first elected to the seat in 2010.

Prior to that time, he worked in the administration Alan Arakawa, who served as Maui County Mayor between 2002-2006. When Arakawa lost the mayor’s race in 2006 Couch was not retained by the incoming mayor Charmaine Tavares, and he returned to his previous occupation – working as an information technology consultant and systems administrator.

In 2008 Couch first ran for the South Maui council seat against then-incumbent Wayne Nishiki, who won the election. The day after the election it was disclosed that Nishiki had received a $100,000 loan from Maui real estate developer Everett Dowling.

In 2009 Couch was the target of an earlier ethics complaint by Lester alleging Couch had received more than the allowable amount from out-of-state contributors.

Couch characterized that complaint as an attempt to divert attention away from the large loan received by Nishiki, who was supported by Lester.

In 2010 Couch ran and won the South Maui seat and retained the office by winning elections in 2012 and 2014.

Kelly King, Couch’s 2016 opponent, was asked about the ethics charges on Wednesday, September 28. She said she was aware of the complaint but did not think it was “appropriate” to comment. She said that she “knew and liked Lester” but he was not affiliated with her campaign. She acknowledged that he had attended a number of her events. She also said that she “knew and liked Couch” and that in prior years, before seeking the office herself, she had supported him.

On September 28 and 29, MAUIWatch spoke with the secretary to the Board of Ethics. She said that the matter would come up at board’s forthcoming Oct. 12 meeting as “a complaint against a public official” and will be discussed in “executive session.” If a decision is made to go forward with the matter, the earliest it would be considered is the board’s November meeting. She said that meetings are customarily held on the second Wednesday of each month.

That would put the November board meeting at the 9th, the day after the election.

The rules of the Maui County Board of Ethics can be found at: http://www.co.maui.hi.us/DocumentCenter/Home/View/8474

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About Susan Halas

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Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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