For The Greater Good

Law and order is front of mind for U.S. Attorney Clare Connors in her role as the state’s top federal prosecutor — but her true calling is public service. PHOTO BY ANTHONY CONSILLIO

As Hawai‘i’s chief federal law enforcement official, U.S. Attorney Clare Connors leads a team of around 60 assistant U.S. attorneys and staff tasked with protecting the public, defending civil rights and upholding the rule of law.

Just a month into the job, on Feb. 8, 2022, she announced the office was charging two former state lawmakers with honest services fraud — in layman’s terms, they were accused of taking money in exchange for legislation and political favors.

Connors (center) with first deputy commissioner of New York City Parks & Recreation Alan Moss (left) and NYC Parks & Recreation commissioner Henry J. Stern in 1997. PHOTO COURTESY CLARE CONNORS

Former state Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty Cullen pleaded guilty and English was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison. At press time, Cullen — a sitting lawmaker when he was charged — was awaiting sentencing.

This case, and several other corruption incidents involving public servants, prompted the state Legislature to create a Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct. Lawmakers passed several ethics-reform bills, and more are under consideration.

Connors (left) and her mother, Betsy Connors, at a Lani-Kailua Outdoor Circle Event. PHOTO COURTESY BETSY CONNORS

During her tenure, Connors also secured convictions against prison guards for assaulting an inmate and attempting to cover it up; a businessman for defrauding the federal government of COVID-19 relief funds; and a former instructor for sexually exploiting a student.

But while Connors takes her role seriously — she sees herself as part of a tradition of leaders guiding an institution with a deep history and a clear mission — she says she hadn’t set out to become an attorney, much less a prosecutor.

Connors is dressed as Outdoor Circle Mascot Mr. Mynah and her mother is dressed as Auntie Litter, another Outdoor Circle figure, at a Kailua Town event in the early 2000s. PHOTO COURTESY BETSY CONNORS

“I never watched L.A. Law or any of those legal shows,” she says. “In high school, I didn’t do debate. I did dramatic interpretation.”

The Punahou School grad is the daughter of a former Catholic priest and a former Catholic nun — both served in the Maryknoll Missionary Society.

Connors answers questions from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee regarding her nomination to be a federal judge in 2015. Although she made it through the committee, the full Senate never voted on her nomination.

Although they separately left the mission and eventually started a family together, they stayed with the church — not because they were blind to its faults, she says, but because they still believed in it as a place they could worship, serve and advance positive change. Connors and her late father were lectors at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Kailua.

The eldest of four children, she remembers a childhood spent outdoors, but also in service.

“We wouldn’t just go hike, we’d go work with the Sierra Club to build a trail,” she says. “Those were very much the ideals that weren’t preached to us (by our parents) but that we just saw in action, in their way of being. That was probably instilled in me at a young age.”

Her mother, now 80, still volunteers at the Women’s Community Correctional Center, helping inmates raise lettuce for the Outdoor Circle’s Learning to Grow hydroponics program.

What set Connors on the path to a law degree was her three-year stint as operations coordinator for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Fresh out of Yale University, she was making sure trash pickups ran on schedule, parks and dog runs opened on time, and the approximately 66 indoor pools and 13 miles of beachfront — including Rockaway Beach and Coney Island — had approved safety plans.

She was only 22 years old and getting a taste of what it was like to make decisions for a complex organization that had a direct impact on everyday life.

After she became Hawai‘i’s attorney general in 2019, Connors reached out to her former boss, the late first deputy commissioner of NYC Parks & Recreation Alan Moss.

“(I told him) ‘I need you to know that what I’m doing here now as the state’s chief law enforcement officer reminds me more of the work you and I did on behalf of the parks department for New York City because it’s all about making sure government works,’” recalls Connors.

“I went into that job right out of college,” she continues. “And I got this sense of, ‘Wow, government can work, and if you put good people in government, people who have this synergy and this commitment to things, everything will run better.’ So, I didn’t go to law school to be a litigator, I didn’t go to law school to be a prosecutor, I went to law school to find out how our systems of governance work.”

Young and motivated — and now armed with a J.D. from Harvard Law School — she planned to return to the parks department.

Instead, she got a clerkship with Judge David Ezra of the U.S. District Court, District of Hawai‘i, and met her husband-to-be at an Outdoor Circle event her mother helped organize.

“I think I landed in Hawai‘i on a Friday and on Saturday (my mom) said, ‘We’re going to this event.’ I said, ‘What event?’”

It turned out to be a Hunks for Trunks fundraiser and she won the bid for an eligible bachelor and Kalāheo High School alum who was offering flying lessons in a small plane.

The flying lessons didn’t stick, but the pilot, a Hawai‘i Air National Guard veteran, did. The pair have been married for nearly 20 years. They have a daughter and a son, both teenagers.

Her life took another turn in 2015, when former President Barack Obama nominated her for a position on the same federal court where she’d clerked for Ezra.

By this point, she’d been a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, specializing in tax fraud, and a member of DOJ’s Honors Program, working on violent crimes and immigration cases. She’d also been an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Hawai‘i and had several years of civil litigation experience in private practice.

She made it through the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, but the full Senate never voted on her nomination. Still, she claims to having no regrets about putting herself out there. “It was a great experience to walk into those halls of the first branch of government, the Senate, and have the opportunity to talk about why I thought I would be an effective member of the Judiciary,” Connors says. “I made it out of committee so it was nothing to do with my qualifications, there was nothing else I could have done.

“The opportunities I have had since then have been wonderful, ones I could never have imagined when I decided to put my name in to be a federal judge.”

While she didn’t get to don the traditional black robe, she found plenty to keep her busy at the private law offices of Davis Levin Livingston, where she handled medical malpractice, personal injury, insurance and civil rights cases, among other things.

When former Gov. David Ige tapped her for the state attorney general spot in 2019, she left a lucrative position in private practice to return to public service after her nomination was approved by the state Senate.

“When I came to the attorney general job, I early on recognized the lawyer stuff I’d done for years,” she says. “I’d been a criminal prosecutor, a civil litigator, I’d argued a lot of cases, I’d been in court, argued appeals — so the law stuff I could do. But the things that were of interest to me were all of these institutional system challenges.”

As attorney general, she set about establishing a structure to examine complex issues. The AG’s Special Investigations Prosecutions Unit — which includes a human trafficking component — and Complex Litigation and Fraud Investigation Unit were among the results of this effort.

The job put her at the helm of a sprawling organization with more than two dozen divisions — everything from crime and labor to legislative matters and administrative services.

“When you get to the AG’s office and you have 240-plus colleagues who have the same bandwidth as you, who are energized, interested and involved in cases at the state and the federal level, it’s like being in a candy shop,” she says, sounding like the more experienced version of the young parks worker.

It was a tremendous opportunity, but no cakewalk.

“As attorney general, there’s a lot of moving pieces,” she says. “When the legislature was in session, I read every single proposed bill and there were thousands. You end up with a couple hundred, but we wanted to be sure that we were providing all levels of counsel to legislators … At the same time, we had a lot of law enforcement actions happening.

“I worked seven days a week. My kids call it the AG years because (they’ll remind me of a non-work event) and I’ll say, ‘Did that happen?’ and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, it was in the AG years, Mom.’”

As for the future, she says she hasn’t thought too far ahead; her current role as the state’s top federal prosecutor is enough to keep her busy.

Also, what happens next may not be up to her. She was nominated by President Joe Biden, who is up for re-election in 2024.

For now, she remains committed to supporting her assistant U.S. attorneys and federal law enforcement partners as they take on corruption, fight violent crime and protect national security.

It may not be the path she originally imagined for herself, but it seems to have led her to the right place.

“Putting yourself out there… in a thoughtful way and with clarity about why you are taking a particular step in your career or your life will never lead you down the wrong path, in my mind,” she says.

“I can only say that now with this many years of experience behind me, having done it a few times. If you have a clear sense of what you want to accomplish … and something beyond yourself is motivating that, then you won’t end up in a place where you shouldn’t be.”