Two Fired Election Workers Sue County
Two of the four county elections workers fired in January have filed lawsuits accusing county officials of defamation of character and negligence.
Former county elections administrator Pat Nakamoto and former senior elections clerk Shyla Ayau are the plaintiffs in the lawsuits. Named as defendants were County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, and a private investigator hired by Yagong. Kawauchi and Yagong are being sued both as individuals and in their official capacities.
According to the lawsuits filed by Hilo attorney Ted Hong, the County of Hawaii is also named in the suit because Kawauchi and Yagong “may have been acting in their official capacity as county officers.”
The election workers were fired by Kawauchi for allegedly violating the county’s alcohol-free workplace policy for having a post-election party in 2010 at the county’s rented warehouse where election materials are stored. Nakamoto and former elections warehouse manager Glen Shikuma were also terminated for allegedly conducting personal business in the warehouse.
Shikuma, an election worker for 12 years, died Aug. 21 on Maui where he was being treated for an aneurysm.
The fourth fired worker, Elton Nakagawa, is not represented by Hong.
Nakamoto, Nakagawa and Ayau, who began working in the election office in 2004, have won reinstatement to their jobs, the lawsuit said.
The firings resulted from an investigation launched by Yagong and Kawauchi in July 2011 that resulted in the hiring of a private investigator. In a resulting report, the investigator, Kevin Antony, said he found sign-making equipment, several bottles of alcohol and numerous empty bottles in the warehouse.
During a press conference today, Hong said while the county rented the warehouse and two parking stalls, the post-election party was held in the other part of the parking lot. Exhibits filed with the lawsuit said the owner of the property approved of the party there.
Hong also said that Nakamoto, a 20-year elections worker who served as the head of the Elections Division for the past 12 years, did not consume alcohol at the party.
According to statements accompanying the lawsuits, several former county clerks said they took part in the post-election parties in the warehouse parking lot.
Hong said both Nakamoto and Ayau have “stellar employment histories,” and the lawsuit notes that fellow county workers named Nakamoto “County Supervisor of the Year” in 2006.
The lawsuits seek damages for past and future lost wages and for “mental and emotional distress, anguish and humiliation.”
Hong told reporters that he was not prepared to disclose the exact amount of damages he would seek at trial but said it would be more than the $500,000 he said in January he would seek for each worker’s emotional distress and damage to their professional standing.
He noted that he had since offered to settle the three worker’s cases for $10,000 for each worker, another $10,000 each for attorney fees, reinstatement to their jobs and a public apology. The County Council rejected that settlement in April.
“For $40,000 and an apology, we wouldn’t have to be sitting here,” he said at the press conference.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants defamed the workers, cast them in a false light and inflicted emotional distress. It also charges that the county was negligent in its investigation of the allegations relating to the election warehouse activities.
It also claims that Kawauchi and Yagong intentionally disclosed confidential information, and that false information was leaked to the media, both of which injured the workers’ reputations and standing in the community.
Kawauchi told Big Island Now that she was not “allowed to comment” on the lawsuit. Yagong told reporters that he had not read the complaint and would have no comment.
Following a union grievance procedure, Nakamoto was reinstated to her job in July but immediately placed on leave with pay. Hong today said that her doctor determined last week that she is suffering from health issues related to stress and as of Wednesday is on sick leave.
Yagong last week told Big Island Now that Kawauchi would meet with Nakamoto on Wednesday in regards to her work situation. However, Hong said that Nakamoto was never informed of the meeting which Kawauchi later cancelled.
Yagong said today he was surprised to hear that, and that he had believed Kawauchi had been in touch with Nakamoto about the meeting.
Because of the stress from the ongoing investigation, Ayau in December decided to transfer to a lower-paying elections job on Kauai, Hong said. Kawauchi fired Ayau two days before the transfer was to go into effect, he said.