Judge appoints bank trustee for Hawaiian heiress' millions

A 92-year-old Native Hawaiian heiress doesn't have sufficient mental capacity to manage her $215-million trust, a judge ruled Monday in a bitter case that has raised allegations her wife is trying to wrestle control over her assets.

Abigail Kawananakoa inherited her wealth by being the great-granddaughter of James Campbell, an Irish businessman who made his fortune as a sugar plantation owner and one of Hawaii's largest landowners.

Native Hawaiians, who consider her a princess because she's a descendent of the family that ruled the islands before the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893, have been watching the case closely because they are concerned about the fate of the foundation she set up to benefit Hawaiian causes.

The judge appointed First Hawaiian Bank to serve as trustee and removed Jim Wright, Kawananakoa's longtime former attorney who stepped in as trustee after she suffered a stroke last year.

Kawananakoa said she's fine, fired Wright and then married her girlfriend of 20 years. She attempted to amend her trust to remove Wright and replace him with three others, including her wife, Veronica Gail Worth.

Removing a trustee is less complex than replacing one, Judge Robert Browning said in not allowing her to select new trustees.

Browning said he spent many days pondering his decision, which he said didn't change after hearing arguments Monday.

It's an important decision, partly because Kawananakoa is revered, he said. "She is someone for who many years ... dedicated her life, energy and money to promoting and preserving Native Hawaiian culture," he said.

Wright's court filings raised allegations that Worth physically abused her. As trustee, Wright appointed Native Hawaiian leaders to serve as board members of Kawananakoa's $100-million foundation. Those members accused Worth of exploiting Kawananakoa.

Worth's attorney, Michael Rudy, denied the allegations. A special master's report found no evidence of undue influence caused by physical abuse, Kawananakoa's attorney, Michael Lilly, said.

Lilly said Kawananakoa intends to leave the bulk of her estate to Native Hawaiians. He argued that opponents have inaccurately portrayed the case as a controversy between Worth and Native Hawaiians.

Roseanne Goo, an attorney representing the foundation, cried as she urged the judge to consider what is right for Kawananakoa. Even though she doesn't have a relationship with her, she and others "hold her in this special place because she is a vulnerable kupuna," Goo said, using a Hawaiian word that can mean elder.

"We have to be concerned about Abigail Kawananakoa as a person before we even consider what should happen to what she has," Goo said.

Long before any controversy over her mental capacity, Kawananakoa selected First Hawaiian Bank to be trustee if Wright wasn't able or willing, Browning noted.

Wright, who didn't attend the hearing, said he offered having the bank step in early in the case.

"I promised Ms. Kawananakoa that I would defend her trust and legacy no matter what," he said after the ruling. "I am grateful that her gift to Native Hawaiians has been preserved."

Sitting next to Worth, Kawananakoa watched the hearing while her pet Chihuahua sat on her lap. The couple didn't comment as they left court.

Their attorneys said they are gratified Wright has been removed but are disappointed Kawananakoa can't select her own trustees.

They said they will consider next steps.

Browning, noting that case filings have "devolved into personal attacks," urged all involved to stop litigating: "It would be indeed a great tragedy for Ms. Kawananakoa to be forced to live her remaining years with the specter of further litigation."