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Another Maui leader to resign — this time, a state senator who may have a conflict of interest in deadly wildfire lawsuit

Screenshot of Hawaii government website (Pictured: state Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran)

A Democrat Hawaiian state senator who represents parts of West Maui has announced that he will resign his seat mid-term, effective later this fall.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran — who represents Wailuku, Kahului, Waihee, Waikapu Mauka, and Waiehu, located on the other side of West Maui from Lahaina — announced that he will resign effective October 31. In a written statement released by the state Senate, Keith-Agaran did not give a specific reason for his abrupt resignation but did suggest that the deadly wildfires that ravaged West Maui earlier this month played a role in it.

"I believe that this decision best serves the interests of the Maui people especially given what they have gone through over the last three weeks, and what they continue to experience," Keith-Agaran's statement said.

"As we know, the Maui community — including members of my extended clan who lived and worked in West Maui — have suffered tremendous losses, including losing loved ones. Some, to this day, are still not identified or found," the statement continued. "The choice for me has always been and will always be my family and community, and this decision is consistent with that overriding value."

After the wildfires had been mostly contained and people began to demand accountability from government leaders and public service providers, Keith-Agaran, who also works as a private attorney, found himself facing tough questions about a possible conflict of interest regarding wildfire litigation.

Keith-Agaran is a partner with the law firm Takitani, Agaran, Jorgensen & Wildman. Another partner in the firm teamed up with Morgan & Morgan — a nationally known injury law firm based in Orlando that has already filed a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric and Maui Electric Co. — to host an event for those individuals and businesses affected by the wildfires. A flier promoting the event, which can be seen in the tweet below, even featured Keith-Agaran's photo.

When asked whether he would side with his constituents or his clients, should push come to shove during the litigation process, Keith-Agaran gave a refreshingly direct answer: "I’ve always had a legal practice. My professional responsibilities are to my clients. So I would pick my clients."

Given his atypical political history, his answer may not be surprising. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as he was establishing his legal career, Keith-Agaran served in many public service roles related to the environment, including as chair of the state Board of Land & Natural Resources, as director of Maui County Department of Public Works & Environmental Management, and even a two-year stint as the head of the Commission on Water Resources Management.

In 2009, Keith-Agaran was appointed to a state House seat after the Democrat incumbent passed away. Four years later, he was appointed to serve in the state Senate.

"I was appointed to this position," he told reporters who questioned his role in the wildfire litigation. "I didn’t run for it initially. So I’m not wedded to staying in the Legislature."

Keith-Agaran's announced resignation is the second resignation by a high-profile Maui leader since the deadly wildfires ignited. Former Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator Herman Andaya, who opted not to sound warning sirens on the island after the fires broke out for fear that residents might run for their lives in the wrong direction, tendered his resignation two weeks ago, citing "health reasons."

According to Hawaiian law, the state Democratic Party will now compile a list of three candidates to replace the outgoing state senator. Gov. Josh Green (D) will then have 60 days to make a selection from that list.

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