Richard Sung Hong ‘Dickie’ Wong, longtime Legislative broker, dies at 88
A former leader of two powerful Hawaiian institutions, the State Senate and Kamehameha Schools, has died.
Richard Sung Hong “Dickie” Wong, who shrewdly rose to power in the Senate and was later ousted from power in the trust formerly known as the Bishop Estate, died on Saturday. He was 88 years old.
Friends and former colleagues confirmed Wong’s death and said he suffered from dementia in recent years.
Wong’s career in the Legislative Assembly spanned four decades and included presiding over the Senate as Speaker for an incredible 14 years until 1992. His tenure as Administrator of the Bishop Estate began in 1992 but continued. ended seven years later amid a state effort to remove him and other administrators over allegations of mismanagement while earning about $1 million a year.
Former Governor Neil Abercrombie, who worked with Wong in the Legislative Assembly in the 1970s, called his former colleague an incredible leader capable of bringing together the most disparate individuals to reach agreements. Wong was also known for his working-class roots, power sharing, and loyalty to those around him.
“There will never, ever be another Dickie Wong,” Abercrombie said.
Wong, who was part Hawaiian and raised by an adoptive mother, was born in Honolulu on June 10, 1933.
At an early age, Wong made money as a shoe shiner. He went on to earn a degree in sociology from the University of Hawaii and became a sales agent for the United Public Workers union after serving as a juvenile detention officer and clerk of the state circuit court. 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 a member of a breakaway group of lawmakers reformers who helped change legislative rules and created a power alliance. with 16 Republicans.
The alliance, in which Wong eventually assumed a leadership role, drew the threat of removing the young lawmaker from the Democratic Party. Instead, Wong ran for and won a Senate seat in 1974, and as a freshman senator he became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, then president of the Senate in 1979.
Abercrombie, who was part of the splinter 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 go, ‘Keep talking.'”
Former Governor Ben Cayetano, another member of the splinter group in the Legislative Assembly under Wong, said, “Dickie Wong had a personality and a temper to organize and lead people.”
Wong once said that his ability to organize stemmed from his work with the UPW, which he quit after being elected so that his sometimes contentious moves in the Legislative Assembly wouldn’t cause trouble for the union.
“I was one hell of a salesman,” he reportedly said in a 1990 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article. “People trust my judgment. They hope that I will not crush them. They think I’m a loyal person.
Wong remained president of the Senate, a position that requires the support of a majority of 25 senators each year, until he retired from the Legislative Assembly in 1992. That same year, the Hawaii Supreme Court appointed Wong to the Bishop Estate board.
The trust, Hawaii’s largest private landowner and operator of Kamehameha schools, founded to educate Hawaiian children, had already drawn criticism for its ties to politics before Wong was named a trustee. Some of its employees were legislators at the time, including Henry Peters and Milton Holt.
A watershed moment that led to reform of the trust’s leadership was a scathing treatise by five prominent community members published by the Star-Bulletin in 1997.
Dubbed the “Broken Trust,” the report prompted the government at the time. Cayetano for the state attorney general’s office to investigate allegations of financial wrongdoing by trustees.
Cayetano said Wong, who became chairman of the board in 1995, appeared to rally his team against the state initiative instead of cooperating.
“He took the hard line,” Cayetano said. “It’s Dickie, he’s loyal to the people around him. I’ve always loved Dickie Wong. It’s unfortunate that we ran into each other, so to speak, while investigating the Bishop Estate.
Eric Seitz, a local attorney who represented Wong, said none of the state’s allegations against Wong were found to be true.
“Dickie was very proud of what he did as an administrator,” Seitz said.
There were legitimate complaints about trustee compensation, which was tied to investment returns. Some of the alleged misdeeds also targeted another administrator, Lokelani Lindsey, who was accused, among other things, of intimidating students at Kamehameha schools.
But Seitz said the state failed to prove its case against Wong.
“There was no fraud,” he assured. “There was no theft. Dickie was a much loved guy who I was a friend of and respected.
State Attorney General Margery Bronster asked the state probate court to remove Wong, Peters and Lindsey in 1998, largely over allegations that the three senior directors used the assets of the trust to get rich.
In 1999, a probate judge ordered the interim removal of directors Wong, Peters, Lindsey and Gerard Jervis. A few months later, Wong avoided a trial on the dismissal action by resigning.
Separately, a grand jury in 1999 indicted Wong along with his ex-wife, Mari, and local developer Jeff Stone, Wong’s brother-in-law, for 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 dismissed the criminal charges after determining that prosecutors unlawfully 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 they had maliciously sued him. The lawsuit, however, was dismissed, and a similar lawsuit filed in state court was also dismissed and upheld in 2006 by the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Information about services for Wong and the names of surviving relatives was not immediately available Monday.