Saturday | November 18, 2017
About Us | Contact | Subscribe

2 of 4 elections workers file lawsuit against county

BY JASON ARMSTRONG

STEPHENS MEDIA

jarmstrong@hawaiitribune-herald.com

HILO — Alleging they were wrongly fired, two former Hawaii County senior elections officials on Friday asked for $500,000 apiece to settle a defamation claim and offset their emotional suffering.

"My clients' professional reputation and standing in the community have been ruined," Hilo labor attorney Ted Hong said of Pat Nakamoto, the longtime elections program administrator, and Glen Shikuma, who had supervised a Hilo elections warehouse.

In addition to his personal injury claim, Shikuma also is seeking $50,000 for alleged property damage. He was let go in October.

Nakamoto's termination letter was dated Jan. 6, County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong said last week. Two additional elections workers also were fired that same day.

Yagong said while he was involved in those decisions, they were made by County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, an appointee of the council's majority headed by Yagong and the county's senior elections official.

"This claim that we're filing this morning is the first step in holding these people responsible," said Hong, who expects to sue the county.

According to the county Charter, employees must file a claim with the clerk's office before becoming eligible to file a lawsuit in circuit court.

Hong alleged Kawauchi made false and defamatory statements about his clients, causing them to suffer physical and emotional distress, injury to their professional standing and harming their "enjoyment of society."

Also, he alleged Kawauchi is keeping Shikuma's equipment, pictures, notepads and other personal property in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Hong, who is a former state labor negotiator and Hawaii County assistant corporation counsel, further claimed Kawauchi is an inexperienced administrator unfamiliar with Hawaii's civil service laws.

That's why she acted like the "Queen of Hearts in 'Alice in Wonderland,' shouting at my clients and saying, 'Off with their heads,'" Hong said.

Kawauchi on Friday declined to comment on Hong's allegations.

Asked last week about the controversy, Yagong said he's been told not to make additional statements.

Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida said he was in Kona much of Friday and had not seen the complaint upon returning to Hilo, but would study it thoroughly later that evening.

"As with all claims, we'll investigate it," Ashida said. "We'll make a fair assessment and decision."

All four of the former civil servants are accused of violating the county's no-alcohol policy by drinking at an elections warehouse the county rents at 210 Makaala St. in Hilo. Shikuma, who was the facility supervisor, also is accused of running a sign-printing business there.

County employees are barred from using government time, equipment or facilities for private business, according to county law.

When asked if he's been approached to represent the two other former workers, Shyla Ayau and Elton Nakagawa, Hong said he couldn't comment on that. One of the documents he gave to members of the news media states he looks forward to proving "four" workers were fired based of "false and exaggerated charges."

Hong acknowledged that his two clients are paying for his legal counsel.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents Nakamoto, and the United Public Workers, of which Shikuma is a member, are "vigorously" pursuing their reinstatement, Hong said.

The alleged violations were uncovered during a site visit Kawauchi conducted with Yagong last July, which was seven months after she started working for the county.

Kawauchi last week said the inspection was part of her due diligence to become familiar with elections operations that occur throughout Hawaii Island.

In July, Shikuma denied any wrongdoing. He said he had no idea why Yagong hired a private investigator to look into the allegations.

Shikuma, a 13-year Elections Division employee, is appealing both his termination, which is at the arbitration level, and Kawauchi's decision to deny him unemployment benefits.

Nakamoto, who has worked for the division in various positions since 1982, also is grieving her termination. She has not commented publicly.

Neither could be reached Friday.

Allegations against them were addressed by Hong, who held a press conference Friday morning in the Hawaii County Building in Hilo. The location outside the clerk's office is just steps from the Elections Division office where both Nakamoto and Shikuma worked.

Various county clerks, council chairs and other county officials "routinely" attended "mahalo" parties held for elections workers at the Hilo warehouse, Hong said. However, none ever told Nakamoto or Shikuma to stop the practice, which involved participants bringing their own alcohol "like any other local party," he said.

"There was no drinking on or in county property, especially the elections warehouse."

The county's lease agreement for the roughly 2,000-square-foot space includes two designated parking stalls in a lot containing about a dozen parking spots. The lot is secured with a heavy-duty gate when the building, which includes other tenants, is closed.

Hong insisted that no alcohol consumption occurred within the county's two parking stalls — he had asked both his clients and the investigator to confirm that claim — and that use of the other private stalls for a party didn't constitute "county property."

Full bottles of beer found within the warehouse were left by party attendees, while those discovered in a refrigerator had been there for at least two years because Shikuma "forgot to throw them out," Hong said.

Also, empty beer bottles inside the warehouse belonged to Shikuma, who was "waiting to take them to the redemption center," Hong said.

One of Hilo's largest redemption centers is located on Makaala Street a few blocks from the elections warehouse.

As for the alleged business activity, Hong said Shikuma closed his business and removed the company's name from the phone book before becoming a county employee.

County clerks, council chairs and other officials knew Shikuma used the warehouse to store printing equipment, which he used to make official county T-shirts, signs and banners for free, Hong said.

"Mr. Shikuma did do some small jobs for friends, who were also former clients, on his machines, on his own time and only charged costs and his time," Hong said, adding that work occurred in June 2006, December 2007 and January 2010.

"This was mishandled from the beginning," Hong said of an investigation that has already cost taxpayers nearly $2,000, triggered a police investigation and resulted in one-third of the Elections Division staff being fired just as one of Hawaii Island's biggest elections seasons is about to start.

"The bottom line is people need to be held accountable," Hong said.