BY JIM DOOLEY – The Hawaii State Legislature this year failed to pay $2.67 million in legal settlements to people brutalized by crime, mangled in car crashes and victimized by bureaucratic indifference.
The Hawaii state Attorney General’s office agreed to settle all the cases – and judges of state and federal courts approved the deals – but a bill authorizing the payments failed to pass the Legislature last week in the crush of end-of-session business.
“I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves,” attorney Eric Seitz said of legislators.
“They have provoked what amounts to a constitutional crisis by usurping the authority of the courts,” said Seitz, who has three cases waiting for settlement payments.
“I have a hearing in federal court tomorrow on precisely this issue,” said Seitz, who filed his suits on behalf of state prison inmates.
Another affected attorney, Dennis Potts, represents a former public high school special education student who was sexually assaulted by a school staffer.
The state has agreed to pay $250,000 into a trust fund for the girl.
“It’s very disturbing to me that this bill wasn’t passed,” Potts continued.
“My client and her guardian are very unsophisticated people,” said Potts.
“The money would help her to live and it’s very critical to her,” Potts continued.
“She’s an immigrant from Micronesia. She is moderately mentally retarded and was in the special ed class at McKinley High School when this terrible thing happened to her,” he said. “My hope is that the Legislature will reconvene and pass this bill.”
The girl’s attacker, Gregory Keau, was working at McKinley as a special education assistant when he assaulted the victim at least twice in 2007 and 2008, according to court files. Keau infected the victim with a sexually transmitted disease. Keau is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
“He was working with all these special needs kids and he was the last person you would want to see in a position like that,” said Potts.
Case files show that the state denied responsibility for Keau’s actions, but Potts found that Keau had been arrested on school property in 2003 for assaulting his then-girlfriend.
“He started having a relationship with that girlfriend when she was 15 and he was 23,” said Potts. “The Department of Education never investigated that case and he kept his job.”
Seitz said he has complained to Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office about the legal settlement bill and asked that the Legislature be re-convened to pass the measure.
“I have in no uncertain terms told the governor’s office that I expect them to call a special session,” he said.
State Rep. Calvin Say, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said last week he believes the Legislature will re-convene in a special session late this month or next month to deal with unresolved legislation, including the legal settlements bill.
“If they don’t fund this bill,” said Seitz, “I’m already looking at ways to get them into federal court to either hold people in contempt for failing to do their duties, to have them removed from office or to get appropriate injunctive relief.
“When they fail to fund settlements, it makes it impossible for the Attorney General’s office or the state’s lawyers to negotiate in good faith or to settle cases,” Seitz said. “The Legislature is refusing to do what it is constitutionally obligated to do.”
The settlement bill was caught up in last-minute wrangling between the Senate and House of Representatives over unrelated measures concerning taxes.
When the dust cleared, there wasn’t time left on the legislative calendar to vote on the settlement.
“When it comes to an obligation which they are constitutionally duty bound to honor and they walk away from it, that jeopardizes the balance of power but it also has a long-term consequence for the state’s credibility,” said Seitz.
One of his clients, Wade T. Itagaki, was incarcerated 83 days longer than his prison sentence and a jury awarded him $83,000 in damages — $1,000 for each day.
“Mr. Itagaki is in a very severe stage of advanced diabetes and is in a wheelchair. I don’t know if he’ll live to see the money,” said Seitz.
The largest settlement, $900,000, would go to Rudy Labinia, who suffered catastrophic injuries when his moped collided with a state dump truck that had made a u-turn on Ft. Weaver Road in Ewa Beach.
A copy of the bill and summaries of the cases can be found here.