By NANCY COOK LAUER
Two fired elections employees have filed defamation lawsuits against Hawaii County, the county clerk, the chairman of the County Council and a county-contracted private investigator, alleging information was leaked about an investigation into drinking parties and a private business operation at the elections warehouse that led to their termination.
The lawsuits were filed in 3rd Circuit Court late Wednesday by Hilo attorney Ted Hong on behalf of former Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto and Senior Elections Clerk Shyla Ayau.
Nakamoto and Ayau and two other employees were fired in January. After union grievance hearings, Nakamoto received a 10-day suspension and she and Ayau were reinstated to their positions, but neither has returned. Ayau has since moved to Kauai, where she’s working as an elections staffer there, and Nakamoto has a doctor’s note excusing her from work because of stress, Hong said.
Hong held a news conference Thursday to talk about the lawsuits.
“You can’t treat people like dirt. It’s just that simple,” Hong said. “We have given the County Council every opportunity to resolve this matter and they haven’t.”
Hong declined to say how much in damages he’s seeking, although he said it would be more than the $500,000 for each plaintiff he had sought when he began threatening lawsuits earlier this year. Hong is asking for a jury to hear the case and set damages. The lawsuit alleges five counts: defamation, defamation through negligence, portraying the plaintiffs in a false light, negligent investigation and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Yagong, Kawauchi and the private investigator for Pahoa-based Corporate Specialized Intelligence and Investigations all declined comment. The defendants have 20 days to answer the lawsuit after they are served.
Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida said he’d just received the lawsuit Thursday and was still reviewing it.
“We make it our No. 1 priority in this and all cases, we will do everything in our power to protect the taxpayers,” Ashida said.
One of the fired elections workers has since been reinstated and gone back to work. The other, former Warehouse Manager Glen Shikuma, was scheduled for a union arbitration in October, but died of an aneurysm late last month.
The controversy started in July 2011 when Kawauchi and Yagong reportedly discovered alcohol and private sign-making equipment in the Makaala Street warehouse. Yagong hired the private investigator after county Human Resources Director Ronald Takahashi recused himself from the case, citing a long-standing friendship with Shikuma.
The investigator found that roughly a quarter of the 3,000-square-foot warehouse was taken up with Shikuma’s sign-making equipment, materials and records, according to a Sept. 6, 2011 investigative report made part of the court record. In addition to two bottles of beer in the refrigerator, an unopened bottle of wine and an opened bottle of beer nearby, the investigator found numerous empty bottles of beer covered with bedsheets and a photo showing Shikuma and other people sitting in the warehouse with open containers of beer in front of them, according to the report. The county has a zero-tolerance alcohol policy.
Investigators also found invoices sent for private sign-making work faxed from county fax machines during business hours and evidence that individuals brought privately owned vehicles to the elections warehouse to have signs placed on them for profit, according to the report.
Investigators also said Nakamoto told them she attended year-end parties at the warehouse where alcohol was consumed, although she denied knowledge of any private business being conducted at the warehouse. She was fired for dereliction of duty, among other factors, according to her termination letter made part of the court record.
But Hong contends the parties were not held in the warehouse or in the two parking spaces the county was leasing, but in the remainder of the parking lot with the permission of the landowner. He also said Nakamoto did not drink at the parties. He submitted letters from former county clerks saying the parties were a tradition for more than 20 years and that Shikuma had permission to store his equipment in the warehouse.
The defamation allegations follow published comments attributed to Yagong and Kawauchi in the media, as well as remarks an unnamed individual using the moniker “Taxedtodeath” and other unamed individuals posted in comment sections of online versions of articles, according to the lawsuit.
Yagong and Kawauchi are being sued both in their official and personal capacities. In addition, the county is being sued, according to the lawsuit, because it was negligent when it failed to provide Yagong, Kawauchi or the private investigator with training on “how to conduct a fair and objective investigation in conformance with the generally accepted practices in public sector collective bargaining.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.