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Richard Sung Hong ‘Dickie’ Wong, longtime power broker in Legislature, dies at 88

A former leader of two powerful Hawaii institutions, the state Senate and Kamehameha Schools, has died.

Richard Sung Hong “Dickie” Wong, who deftly rose to power in the Senate and later was forced from power at the trust formerly known as Bishop Estate, died Saturday. He was 88.

Friends and former colleagues confirmed Wong’s death and said he had been afflicted with dementia in
recent years.

Wong’s career in the
Legislature spanned four
decades and included presiding over the Senate as president for an incredible 14 years until 1992. His tenure as a Bishop Estate trustee began in 1992 but ended seven years later amid an effort by the state to remove him along with other trustees over allegations of mismanagement while earning about $1 million a year.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who worked with Wong in the Legislature in the 1970s, called his former colleague an amazing leader who was able to coalesce the most disparate individuals into reaching agreements. Wong also was known for his working-class roots, power sharing and loyalty to those in his circle.

“There will never, ever be another Dickie Wong,” Abercrombie said.

Wong, who was part Native Hawaiian and raised by an adoptive mother, was born in Honolulu on June 10, 1933.

At an early age Wong earned money shining shoes. He later earned a sociology degree from the University of Hawaii and became a business agent for the United Public Workers union after stints as a juvenile detention officer and a state Circuit Court clerk. Wong also spent time in the early 1960s helping register voters in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Wong, a Democrat, was first elected to public office in 1966 when he won a state House seat representing the Nuuanu-Alewa Heights area, and became part of a dissident group of reform-minded lawmakers who helped change legislative rules and created a power alliance with 16 Republicans.

The alliance, in which Wong ended up taking a leadership role, drew a threat to remove the young lawmaker from the Democratic Party. Instead, Wong ran for and won a Senate seat in 1974, and as a freshman senator became chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and then Senate president in 1979.

Abercrombie, who was part of the dissident group, said Wong helped unseat “old guard” Democrats and exuded power by quietly encouraging members to reach agreements on legislation.

“We were all divided,” Abercrombie recalled. “Dickie would just sit there and say, ‘Keep talking.’”

Former Gov. Ben Caye­ta­no, another dissident group member in the Legislature under Wong, said, “Dickie Wong had a personality and temperament to get folks organized and lead.”

Wong once said his ability to organize stemmed from his UPW job, which he gave up after being elected so his sometimes controversial moves at the Legislature wouldn’t cause problems for the union.

“I was a hell of a business agent,” he was quoted as saying in a 1990 Honolulu Star-Bulletin story. “People have trust in my judgment. They trust that I won’t be end-running them. They feel I’m a loyal person.”

Wong remained Senate president, a position that requires backing every year from a majority of 25 senators, until he retired from the Legislature in 1992. That same year, the Hawaii Supreme Court appointed Wong to Bishop Estate’s board of trustees.

The trust, Hawaii’s largest private landowner and operator of Kamehameha Schools, founded to educate Hawaiian children, already had attracted criticism for connections to politics before Wong was named a trustee. Some of its employees were lawmakers at the time, including Henry Peters and Milton Holt.

A seminal moment that led to reforming the trust’s leadership was a scathing treatise from five prominent community members published by the Star-Bulletin
in 1997.

Dubbed “Broken Trust,” the report prompted then-Gov. Cayetano to have the state Attorney General’s Office investigate allegations that included financial wrongdoing by trustees.

Cayetano said Wong, who became trustee chair in 1995, appeared to rally his team against the state’s initiative instead of cooperating.

“He took the hard line,” Cayetano said. “That’s Dickie, he’s loyal to the people in his circle. I always liked Dickie Wong. It’s unfortunate that we crossed paths, so to speak, on the investigation of Bishop Estate.”

Eric Seitz, a local attorney who represented Wong, said none of the state’s allegations against Wong were proved true.

“Dickie was very proud of what he did as a trustee,” Seitz said.

There were legitimate complaints over trustee compensation, which was tied to investment returns. Some of the alleged misdeeds also were focused on another trustee, Lokelani Lindsey, who was accused of intimidating Kameha­meha Schools students, among other things.

But Seitz said the state failed to prove its case against Wong.

“There was no fraud,” he said. “There was no theft. Dickie was a pretty beloved guy who I was a friend of and I respected.”

The state’s then-Attorney General Margery Bronster petitioned state Probate Court to remove Wong,
Peters and Lindsey in 1998 largely over allegations
that the three lead trustees used trust assets to enrich themselves.

In 1999 a probate judge ordered the interim removal of trustees Wong, Peters, Lindsey and Gerard Jervis. A few months later, Wong avoided a trial on the removal action by resigning.

Separately, a grand jury in 1999 indicted Wong along with his former wife, Mari, and local developer Jeff Stone, Wong’s brother-in-law, over an alleged kickback scheme involving a condominium development project in Hawaii Kai on trust land. Wong was charged with theft, perjury and criminal conspiracy.

A state Circuit Court judge threw out the criminal charges after determining that prosecutors illegally bolstered the grand jury
testimony of a former attorney for Stone.

In 2002, Wong filed a federal lawsuit against state officials, including Cayetano and Bronster, claiming that they maliciously prosecuted him. The suit, however, was dismissed, and a similar lawsuit filed in state court also was denied and upheld in 2006 by the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Information about serv­ices for Wong and names of surviving relatives was not immediately available
Monday.

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