Editor’s Note: This is another installment in our occasional series, It’s Your Money, that looks more closely at public expenses that taxpayers may not realize they’re being asked to pay.
Taxpayers are on the hook for $90,000 following a whistleblower lawsuit claiming state officials failed to comply with environmental laws when issuing dozens of permits for activities at the protected Papahānaumokuākea monument.
David Weingartner, an attorney and policy specialist at the 89.5-million-acre marine reserve, was hired to ensure state environmental laws and regulations were followed, his lawsuit said.
But he found that permits were being issued without proper environmental review. Weingartner said he raised the alarm repeatedly with his superiors at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, who fired him instead of correcting the problems.
Now, neither side is talking about what happened. The state agreed to keep details of the settlement confidential because it contains information about private parties, according to Josh Wisch, special assistant to the attorney general.
But that means the public can’t know whether the environmentally sensitive monument was put at risk, whether state officials did anything wrong and whether they’ve taken steps to improve permitting practices, if necessary.
Hawaii’s attorney general has asked the Legislature to appropriate money for the settlement and the bill is currently advancing through the Legislature.
It’s unclear whether the state admitted any culpability in the 2009 case.
During Weingartner’s five months on the job, officials working at the sanctuary issued more than 50 permits, the majority of which appear to have been for research activities. Permits were issued to agencies such as the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, the Oceanic Institute, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, NOAA and DLNR, according to the legal complaint.
Weingartner said when he brought compliance issues to the attention of his supervisors, they cut his caseload and refused to let him take his concerns to higher-ups in DLNR. Eventually, they told him they’d lost federal funding for his position and that budget cuts meant he was being let go. In his lawsuit, he said his termination was retaliation for raising the concerns and was in violation of the Whistleblower Act.
KAHEA alleged that the agency was wrongly approving activities like shark kills, extreme-sports canoe racing, harvesting of thousands of marine species and disturbing sunken vessels. The permits were being issued without properly considering the impact on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, KAHEA said.
Marti Townsend, the group’s executive director, told Civil Beat that the suit was dropped because the group lacked adequate resources to pursue it, and that negotiations with DLNR seemed like an easier avenue.
“We didn’t want to hold up research that really needs to be done in order to protect this resource from further decimation,” she said.
Townsend said that she wasn’t satisfied with subsequent discussions with state officials, however.
Weingartner’s attorney, Dennis King, would not comment on the case other than to say that, “the parties reached a settlement on mutually satisfactory terms.”
Weingartner himself could not be reached for comment.
Laura Thielen, who was chair of DLNR at the time, said that she disagreed with the state’s decision to settle, and that the department had worked extensively with the attorney general’s office during her tenure to ensure they were following the law.
“I think we were in compliance with the law,” she said. “He was not terminated. His contract was not renewed for fiscal reasons.”
You can read the Weingartner’s complaint below: