Honolulu City Council member Tom Berg fired his chief of staff after he escalated a World Wide Web war of words by creating a website accusing a state lawmaker of being a crook.
An aide to Berg told Civil Beat Saturday that chief of staff Eric Ryan had been given the “pink slip” on Thursday or Friday — just before Ryan was set to reveal more information attacking state Rep. Kymberly Pine, who Ryan alleges owes him money for services during the last election cycle.
Neither Berg nor Ryan immediately returned phone messages and emails asking about the firing Saturday.
“Eric was told to turn in his stuff and take his stuff out and we changed the locks in the door and we turned off his computer. So there’s no doubt about Tom’s intent to fire him,” Philmund Lee, Berg’s deputy chief of staff and legislative aide, told Civil Beat. He said the paperwork is still being processed.
Earlier in the week, after Ryan promoted the new website, KymPineIsACrook.com, with a flier comparing Pine to disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner and accused child murderer Casey Anthony, Berg put out a statement expressing his desire to stay out of the matter:
I do not meddle in the affairs of employees’ personal financial squabbles with third parties and encourage disputes be resolved with mediation or small claims court if necessary. I am not of party to the dispute nor is it applicable to the work at hand I am trying to accomplish for the district and county. I cannot comment on the dispute because I am not involved in this dispute and it does not involve in any way our office at City Hall. The discourse exhibited by both parties in this grievance is not of party to our duties and obligations at City Hall and is a personal conflict between two Ewa Beach residents.
Lee said the statement was crafted on the advice of legal advisers who warned Berg that getting involved could constitute an abridgment of Ryan’s right to free speech and could expose Berg — and the city — to a potential lawsuit. Lee said Ryan was an at-will employee and could be fired without explanation.
“It is employment at will, so Tom does not have to state a reason, but if he states the wrong reason, he can be sued,” he said.
Lee also said Berg is sensitive about firing people for the wrong reasons because Berg believes he was fired by Democratic state Rep. Rida Cabanilla because he had a bumper sticker expressing support for GOP presidential candidate John McCain and because he made statements expressing support for noted rail critic and mayoral candidate Panos Prevedouros.
Berg and his staff won’t explicitly state that the fight with Pine was behind the decision to fire Ryan, but the timing and other statements from Lee indicate it’s not a coincidence.
“I can firmly state — he’s begging Eric to stop, stop, stop the attack on Kym,” Lee said. Berg may rescind the firing and Lee, if promoted to chief of staff, would consider bringing Ryan back — “if his outside activities don’t coincide with bringing Tom down.”
Read earlier coverage of Ryan’s controversial web activities: