Former Chief of Staff Eric Ryan says Honolulu City Council member Tom Berg fired him for blowing the whistle on government waste in Honolulu Hale.
Berg, who had avoided publicly bad-mouthing Ryan even after firing him, took off the gloves Monday, saying he’d been battling with Ryan for months over his refusal to do his work and for putting his personal issues ahead of constituents’ needs.
If Ryan’s history with former employers is any indication, the war of words is just beginning.
Three days after he was given his walking papers, Ryan posted an extraordinary assault on Berg on his website, KymPineIsACrook.com. Shortly after 10:30 a.m. Monday, he updated his website with information, links and photos that he said revealed “corruption” in the eccentric office.
The firing culminated wrestling within Berg’s office over Ryan’s public attacks on state Rep. Kymberly Pine, who Ryan said owed him money from the 2010 campaign. Ryan had gone so far as to compare Pine with disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner and accused child killer Casey Anthony.
Ryan’s chief complaint is that Berg told staff they couldn’t take photos without permission, even requiring them to sign a contract of sorts after Ryan was caught surreptitiously taking snapshots of Deputy Chief of Staff Philmund Lee while Lee slept or changed clothes in the office — allegedly during work hours. Ryan said that the proscription against documenting those episodes amounted to a “coverup” of “waste, fraud and abuse.”
Lee told Civil Beat that his job is a salaried, management position that requires long hours — not 8 to 5 like civil service employees.
“If I take a short nap at lunch, I still have enough hours because I’m working until midnight and on Saturdays and Sundays,” Lee said, disputing the idea that there was waste of taxpayer money in Berg’s office.
While Ryan wrote on kympineisacrook.com that the “whistleblowing” was cited specifically as the reason for his termination, he also said Berg timed his firing early Friday to discourage Ryan from revealing the sordid details of his ongoing fight with Pine, who he says still owes him money from campaign work last year.
“So while Councilman Berg cites the illegal reason of whistleblowing about corruption in his office as his reason for firing me, like many others I suspect that he was really trying to protect his political ally and mentor from my whistleblowing about her election year corruption and her subsequent coverup,” Ryan wrote.
Berg emerged from a series of meetings Monday with a smile on his face, ecstatic that he finally had gotten rid of the “problem child” and “loose cannon” in his office. He said that District 1 is going to “profiteer, benefit from purging this man from our system and our team.” He even invited Civil Beat to capture the moment of Ryan’s official termination in photographs, holding a sort of bill-signing ceremony to celebrate. (See the photo at the top of this story of a joyous Berg.)
But Berg flashed anger, too. He called Ryan a “madman” and a “professional extortionist” — though he later asked to retract that statement after Lee warned him it might be used against him in a lawsuit. Berg said taking “clandestine” photos of colleagues was “creepy,” slamming his fist on his desk.
Berg said he’d been warned about Ryan’s antics but decided to give a man he described as “brilliant” an opportunity to put his considerable email, web and public relations skills to positive use for the citizens of District 1.
“Fully aware of the history of Eric Ryan, I had offered an opportunity for a clean slate because I thought and had offered my judgment that he could advance closure of the landfill, traffic relief and a benefit to the district to his talents to help educate the public,” Berg said.
“I thought that he could take conflict against individuals and turn it against government and transform it for the greater good,” said Berg, a self-described member of the Tea Party. “It just so happens that it went awry.
“A chief of staff gives 24-7 to the district. He chose to, on his own accord, to not embark upon the people’s business of District 1 but on his own slants, on his own mission,” he said. “We fed him from A to Z of things to keep him occupied for District 1. He chose to not accommodate District 1’s needs but rather to go on his own pursuits.”
Ryan disputes Berg’s account. He wrote on his website that he intends to “swiftly seek justice” that could include reinstatement with pay, damages, penalties and sanctions for wrongful termination and for violating whistleblower protection laws.
The allegations on the website included this timeline of events, each with documentation:
June 3: Lee had an argument with Honolulu Hale security when he was asked for identification on a furlough day. Berg did not take action.
June 13: Berg told his staff to stop recording each other without permission, requiring them to sign a “contract.”
July 15: In a 12:04 a.m. email, Berg tells Ryan he’s being terminated for taking pictures of a coworker in a secret fashion and for making “ill-will comments about my team.” Another staffer is also fired.
“I have every reason to believe that Berg’s colleagues on the City Council, the City’s corporation counsel, and the Council’s human resources personnel will conclude that Berg’s termination of me was illegal, poorly-advised, and will take steps of their own to bring about a remedy in this matter,” he wrote.
Berg said it took as long as it did to fire Ryan because he wanted to be in a position where he could terminate Ryan without opening the door to any legal recourse — and because he wanted to make sure his legislative websites, usernames and passwords were secure from Ryan’s wrath.
“If he wants to sue me for wrongful termination, the reason why it took three, four months to fire him was because I made sure my ducks were in order to remove him from my office,” he said.
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