BY JIM DOOLEY – Governor Neil Abercrombie’s new chief of staff maintains an active private business life in real estate sales and investments but he says those side interests won’t interfere with his duties on the fifth floor of the Capitol.
Bruce Coppa was serving as head of the state Department of Accounting and General Services until Abercrombie picked him last week to replace the governor’s outgoing chief of staff, Amy Asselbaye.
Coppa is also a real estate agent with the firm Hawaii 5-0 Properties, Inc. and heads his own consulting firm. He worked until July 2010 as chief operating officer of one of the largest public relations firms in the state, Communications- Pacific.
After Coppa left CommPac, he sued the company for a severance payment.
Coppa says he has no plans to give up his real estate license and does not foresee any conflict with his duties as chief of staff.
Hawaii Five-0 Properties lists Coppa as a “Realtor Associate” on its website and says he is “currently serving, by gubernatorial appointment as the Head of the Department of Accounting and General Services.”
The site also says Coppa “remains active in real estate projects across the state.”
Coppa said this week he didn’t know Hawaii Five-0 Properties had identified him as the director of DAGS on its website.
Coppa’s private and public lives came together last week when he represented the state at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new luxury condominium project in the Hawaii Kai area called Hale Ka Lae.
Hawaii Five-O Properties is the exclusive sales agent for the project, where units are priced from $700,000 to $3.8 million.
Coppa said he saw no conflict of interest in his participation in the groundbreaking.
“I’m not involved in sales there,” he said. “A separate team is handling those sales.”
Coppa said he attended the ceremony as a representative of state government and that several other department heads were also invited to attend.
Coppa reported his connection to Hawaii 5-0 Properties on the financial disclosure form he filed last year with the state Ethics Commission after he joined Abercrombie’s cabinet.
He said his work there brought him between $25,000 and $50,000 in income in 2010.
His consulting firm, Coppa Consulting, Inc., was formed after he left Communications-Pacific and brought him between $10,000 and $25,000 in income, Coppa reported.
As chief operating officer of Communications-Pacific for half of 2010, Coppa was paid between $50,000 and $100,000, he reported.
Coppa filed a small claims court complaint against the company and its president, influential local businesswoman Catherine “Kitty” Lagareta, after she refused to fully fund his eight-week severance package.
In paperwork filed in that suit, Coppa’s lawyer, Lyle Hosoda, claimed that Coppa was terminated because of financial problems in the company.
“It appears that the company failed to react quickly enough when the economy turned down and work slowed. Unfortunately the spending of the company and its principal (Lagareta) were not tightened down quick enough,” Hosoda wrote in a letter to Lagareta’s lawyer.
The termination was initially amicable, with both parties “vowing to help one another in the community by networking and cross-referring work,” Hosoda said.
Coppa told people that he had left CommPac to form his own firm “so as not to rouse any speculation or suspicion about the company having financial or other problems,” Hosoda wrote in the letter.
Then CommPac made “wild and spurious allegations” that Coppa was not honoring the terms of his severance agreement by using confidential Commpac information in his new business, by disparaging CommPac and by soliciting CommPac employees to work for him, according to documents filed in the case.
Hosoda urged that the two sides use “aloha rather than litigation” to settle their differences.
Litigation, he said, could involve “top level employees (and former employees) of the company … and there is the strong possibility of exposure and bad public relations,” Hosoda wrote.
The case was settled with payment to Coppa of some $13,000. As part of the settlement, Coppa returned documents and CommPac corporate material in his possession after he left the company.
The court papers show that Coppa’s salary in 2006 was $150,000 and he was promoted to chief operating officer of the firm in 2008.
While Coppa worked at CommPac he was permitted to pursue outside real estate interests “on his own time, after-hours and on weekends,” according to court records.
Lagareta declined to comment on Coppa or his lawsuit.
Coppa said his experiences with Lagareta and CommPac would have no effect on his actions as chief of staff for the governor if any issues involving the company’s many major business clients cross his desk.
Coppa’s state financial disclosure form says he holds interests in two commercial real estate investment partnerships.
One of them, however – identified by Coppa last year as Kapolei Gateway LLC – was terminated in 2009, according to state business records.
Land and business records show Coppa is an investor in another partnership, Kapolei Shops LLC, which is not listed on his financial disclosure form.
Coppa said he believed that the name of Kapolei Gateway had been changed to Kapolei Shops, although state business records list them as different entities.
Kapolei Shops holds a multi-million-dollar ownership interest in Kapolei Village Center, a major new shopping center being developed in partnership with Foodland Super Market Ltd.
Coppa will assume chief of staff duties full time at the end of this month. In the meantime, he is still the state Comptroller as the head of the Department of Accounting and General Services, shuttling regularly across Punchbowl Street between his DAGS office and the Capitol.