BY HAWAII REPORTER STAFF — Hawaii State Senator Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, at a Senate Ways and Means Investigative hearing yesterday proposed a new Hawaii reality show: “Fantasy Island: Lihue, Kauai Airport.”
It was in jest, but Slom, a member of the legislative investigative committee looking into allegations of waste, fraud and mismanagement within the state Department of Transportation’s airport division, said there are a remarkable number of problems at the Kauai state facility.
“How much could happen on a small island with a small DOT presence?” asked Slom, the only Republican member of the investigative committee.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Donna Mercado Kim initiated the investigation into the state Department of Transportation after complaints from private contractors and DOT employees throughout the state, particularly on the islands of Oahu and Kauai.
Yesterday, the committee heard more about what Slom deemed “the best four contestants for the reality show over the last two years:”
*A female DOT employee (unnamed at the hearing yesterday) embezzled $15,000 or more from the state DOT. She admitted to stealing the money in writing, according to Kim. But the state DOT management on Kauai wanted to make sure the employee was telling the truth, was treated fairly, and that the DOT officials followed the proper procedures, so they put her on paid leave for nearly two months while they investigated further.
Now that criminal charges are pending, Senators asked if there was a way to recover the money and benefits paid to her for those two months, but DOT director Brennan Morioka says no.
Senators on the committee in addition to Slom and Kim, including Brickwood Galuteria, Suzanne Chun Oakland and Michelle Kidani, listened as Morioka and his Kauai deputy director, Francis Paul Keeno, said they were unsure whether there was any way to recover the embezzled money.
*A male employee (also unnamed) simply walked off the job at Lihue Airport on December 4, 2008, and didn’t disclose why. Meanwhile he continued to get paid more than $5,000 that the state DOT now admits he wasn’t entitled to.
While there was conjecture why he left (upset with management, son in the Marines, other personal problems, criticism of his HGEA union representation), no one has ever spoken to him specifically or given him professional counseling.
The employee approached Keeno and George “Manu” Crabbe III, the Kauai Airports district manager, several months later to be reinstated. Keeno yesterday did not know how many months the man was off the job at the time of his request.
Crabbe, a friend to the Hawaii Government Employees Association state workers union, wanted to help expedite the return of the employee. So on February 22, 2010, the DOT in conjunction with the HGEA, agreed to a settlement. The DOT officials claim that the employee formally resigned, and the DOT recinded his “resignation.” They let the employee resume his initial date of hire and his seniority, offered him the same salary (AOC1 Salary 14 Step F), claimed he was on authorized leave, and authorized $2,261.52 in vacation pay.
Kauai DOT officials then found out that they had overpaid him $5,084.55. But they did not try to recoup the money.
When Slom asked Keeno why they didn’t simply deduct the amount overpaid from the employee’s salary, he said they “assumed he would get a lawyer and sue us.” Keeno also said that like former Hawaiian King Kamehameha the Great, he decided to offer forgiveness under the philosophy of the “splintered paddle.”
The Feb. 3, 2010, document to reinstate him, was also supportive of the HGEA union, one of the signators was the HGEA representative Dale Shimomura. In this DOT document, Item 12 says that the employee agrees to waive any and all claims against the HGEA, and that he has been fully and fairly represented by the HGEA.
Kim, who was aghast that the female employee who admitted to stealing but stayed on the job for two months, and the man who walked off the job and was allowed to return to work, questioned the impact of these decisions on the morale of other state workers and the message that it might send to them.
*A security consultant hired to work at the Kauai airport by Securitas, a private security contractor at the state airports, was given several thousand dollars above his contracted salary to act as a liaison between the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airports division and to reduce the amount of complaints against the Lihue airport by the TSA. He lasted just several months on the job, and during that time, Slom and Kim note that the Lihue airport was fined more money by the TSA than any other airport in the state. Only a few of the fines were mitigated, but none, they say, were due to the consultant’s involvement.
*There was a security breach at the Lihue Airport on Sept. 11, 2009, by one of the management personnel who entered an unauthorized area, reportedly with additional people. The costs of that security breach on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on American soil, are still being determined by the federal government and the TSA, but it will bring further financial loss, liability and scrutiny to Kauai.
Lawmakers say these four incidents happening within months of each other show there are serious management and oversight problems within the DOT, especially on Kauai.
In another twist, the main deputy to Morioka, Brian Sekiguchi, resigned just weeks ago after intense scrutiny by the Senate Ways and Means committee. Committee members, headed by Kim, questioned him on his pay, gifts, vacation and some of his other decisions. As a result, he is now under investigation by the state ethics commission and attorney general. Kim notes that Sekiguchi also was involved directly in Lihue incidents.
Morioka says they are looking into the problems with management on Kauai and are working to solve the problems within the DOT. Kim says they are not working fast enough, and the problems have continued within the DOT “for years.”
Kim, who has held a series of meetings on the DOT and other state departments to delve into alleged mismanagement, asked for further information from the DOT and plans to schedule a follow up meeting.
Reach Hawaii Reporter Editor Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com