A Senate committee approved Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s nominee to lead the state’s prisons system on Thursday, naming Jodie Maesaka-Hirata director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

All five members of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Government Operations and Military Affairs voted to approve Maesaka-Hirata, who has been in the position on an interim basis since Nov. 29. She previously was warden of the Waiawa Correctional Facility. Her term expires Dec. 1, 2014.

The confirmation hearing was much more tame than a previous one where Maesaka-Hirata presented the department’s budget proposal to the Ways and Means Committee. Lawmakers at that time grilled her about reports of excessive overtime use and a critical state auditor’s report.

The department has come under criticism for its excessive overtime use. A Civil Beat investigation found that more than a dozen employees earned more than 1,000 hours of overtime while taking high amounts of vacation and sick leave.

Senators received more than 50 pieces of written testimony in support of Maesaka-Hirata’s nomination, including from Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, a former director of the Public Safety Department. Also in support was Dayton Nakanelua, state director of the United Public Workers union, which covers institutional, health and corrections employees. Two letters opposed her nomination.

In her own testimony, Maesaka-Hirata told senators that she was “born” into this department because her late father was a corrections officer for the state. Her older brother, Robert Maesaka, is a sergeant at the Halawa Correctional Facility.

“We do what we do because we are in the business of changing behavior,” she testified. “I do what I do ’cause I love this department, I was born part of it … I stand here wanting to move it forward.”

Committee chairman Sen. Will Espero gave her an opportunity to address allegations and concerns raised in an anonymous letter to the committee.

Regarding concerns about nepotism because her brother works for the department, Maesaka-Hirata said he “absolutely does not” report directly to her. “I just want people to know,” she said, “that every time he went for a promotion, I never sat on any of the panels, I recused myself.”

She also dispelled concerns about a trip she took to Argentina while she was the warden at Waiawa Correctional Facility. She confirmed that the trip was paid for by the religious group Transformation Hawaii, but that it was approved by former director Clayton Frank and cleared by the state Ethics Commission. She said the purpose of the trip was to visit programs at a prison in Argentina, at the request of Transformation Hawaii, which has done volunteer work for the Waiawa facility.

Sen. Sam Slom asked Maesaka-Hirata to “clarify” her position on the return of Hawaii prisoners from mainland facilities.

“It’s the governor’s desire to bring them home within four years,” she said. “If our facilities are not sound, we will have a problem … We’re looking at what beds are available in the community, and whatever cost savings we get, we ask the Legislature to reinvest that money into programs that are in the community that can work with offenders.”

Espero said the state spends about $60 million a year on contracts to house inmates in mainland prisons.

Asked by the committee what some of her short- and long-term goals for the department are, Maesaka-Hirata said she is working on creating a master plan that she hopes to share at the next legislative session. She said she’s also looking for outside funding in terms of grants and partnerships.
“I’m looking at ways to shift the mindset as to what it is that we do,” she said, “and empower staff to understand that we need to work closer with offenders.”

Also confirmed at the hearing were Darryll Wong as adjutant general of the Department of Defense, and Bruce Coppa as comptroller of the Department of Accounting and General Services.

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