By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The former chief of the county’s Highways Division chief is suing the county and Public Works Director Warren Lee, alleging defamation of character.
The civil complaint filed Friday in Hilo Circuit Court by attorney Ted Hong on behalf of Stanley Nakasone alleges that county sources provided “incomplete documentation” about a drywell pumping contract that was the subject of an editorial in the West Hawaii Today newspaper on May 13, 2011.
“He wants his name cleared and it’s just that simple,” Hong said Monday. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified monetary amount for general and special damages from the county and Lee “including but not limited to past and future lost wages, mental and emotional distress, anguish and humiliation.” The suit also seeks punitive damages from Lee, alleging “the defendants’ actions were willful, wanton, reckless or done with conscious indifference to the consequences ….”
Lee is being sued both in his official capacity and as an individual.
The opinion piece written by then-Editor Reed Flickinger questioned the execution of the contract, claiming improper dumping of waste materials by Kamaaina Pumping at the county’s Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment plant. Sources within Public Works said invoices weren’t filed and the drywells were not inspected, before or after work was performed. At least one source implicated Nakasone, stating “there is no control.”
West Hawaii Today ran a “setting the record straight” piece on May 13, 2012, exactly a year after the original editorial. In it, Flickinger wrote that the Kona newspaper “subsequently learned the contractor in question had specific permission to deposit dried materials on county property and the county had instructed the contractor to that effect. … County documents show … prioritized lists of specific sites to be cleaned and detailed invoices were submitted … before payments were approved.
“We learned that investigation by the county absolved Nakasone; it found no wrongdoing on his part.”
In the later piece, Flickinger apologized to Nakasone and the paper’s readers for “creating a wrong impression of Nakasone’s role.”
Neither Flickinger nor West Hawaii Today is named as a defendant in the suit.
Hong said Nakasone is suing the county because officials have not publicly gone on record to state that Nakasone was cleared of any wrongdoing.
“The county did an investigation, as we put in the lawsuit, and it found no wrongdoing on the part of my client, but that was after some information was leaked to the media and certain aspersions were made about my client’s participation,” he said. “My client had requested that the county make a public statement that everything was kosher before and after the investigation, and the county refused.”
Neither Lee nor Deputy Public Works Director Brandon Gonzalez, an attorney and former deputy corporation counsel, returned a phone call on Monday afternoon.
Nakasone no longer heads the Highways Division, which is part of Public Works. County Human Resources Director Ron Takahashi said Monday that Nakasone is now a “projects administrator” in DPW.
“There are sometimes circumstances where by not saying anything, you force people or you allow people to reach certain conclusions, however erroneous, and that’s the situation we have here,” Hong said. “I think the county should have done the right thing and clarified that right away, given the public interest. They refused, and as a result, my client was injured in terms of his reputation.
“… My client, he’s well known in the community, well known in his church, and it’s injury to his reputation. If the county had put out a press release saying there was no wrongdoing on the part of my client — whether (the media) ran it or not — we wouldn’t be here today.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.