The Honolulu Ethics Commission has opened an investigation into how the Honolulu Fire Department handed out a consulting contract to evaluate the merits of a merger with the Emergency Services Department, Civil Beat has learned.

“I can confirm that we’re investigating the complaint,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto said. “That’s all I can tell you until the investigation runs its course.”

Totto said he couldn’t reveal the target of the investigation or the timeline, citing the state’s open records law and privacy concerns. But he did say the Ethics Commission isn’t the normal backstop for procurement disputes. It would only get involved if there’s an allegation of conflicts of interest or misuse of a city position or another ethical guideline.

At issue is the fact that Fire Chief Kenneth Silva sits on the board of a fire chief organization that owns the consultant hired to do the report for $175,000.

Silva said he’s already provided the Ethics Commission with weighted matrix scoring sheets and other materials to assist with the investigation. He insisted nothing inappropriate occurred and that the process was overseen by the Division of Purchasing in the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services.

“I think that all of the checks and balances are in place, and I think that Procurement is pretty much the watchdog of all of those things,” Silva told Civil Beat. “Put it this way: If the consultant’s findings had been that the merge wasn’t a good idea, I don’t think that EMS would be coming forward to question the consultant. I think it’s motivated by the findings.”

Messages left with Central Purchasing and Contracts Administrator Wendale Imamura were not immediately returned.

The contract in question was awarded to Emergency Services Consulting International in 2010 at a cost of $175,000. ESCI eventually produced a report last summer extolling the virtues of a merger, promising millions of dollars in potential savings. The report remains on Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s desk as he mulls his options amid political pressures to move the merger forward, though both Carlisle and Kirk Caldwell have said they wouldn’t rely on the report as gospel.

ESCI was one of four bidders for the contract, and a panel of three city leaders weighed various criteria to determine who would win. The panelists were Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Perkins, EMS Chief Patty Dukes and Paul Au of the Department of Human Resources.

“Unfortunately, I have been instructed to keep this issue confidential during the investigation, and therefore I am unable to speak about it,” Dukes said in an email Thursday. “Please understand.”

Perkins has since retired. Messages left at Au’s office was not immediately returned.

The reason the dispute rises to the level of an Ethics Commission investigation rather than just a procurement challenge is the convoluted web of connections between the Honolulu Fire Department and the consultant that was hired to do the job, ESCI.

Silva is on the board of directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, representing Hawaii and nine other Western states. He’s also involved with the Western Fire Chiefs Association and the Hawaii Fire Chiefs Association, and said he encourages all of his chiefs and assistant chiefs to join those organizations.

In 2009, more than a year before the procurement process played out in Honolulu, IAFC announced it would merge Global Public Safety Solutions with Emergency Services Consulting to form a new company called Emergency Services Consulting International, and would operate ESCI as a for-profit subsidiary.

According to minutes from the Western Fire Chiefs Association April 2009 meeting in Napa, California, Silva was not in attendance for a discussion of the WFCA’s “partnership agreement” that could involve a “business relationship to promote their consulting services.”

In August of that year, WFCA announced a “strategic partnership” with ESCI that included speakers for professional development seminars for member departments, consulting services for WFCA leadership and “revenue sharing opportunities for WFCA referrals.”

Asked about a “referral program” that would result in money for WFCA or a member of WFCA for steering a consulting contract to ESCI, Silva said, “There’s nothing like that.”

When ESCI emerged in June 2010 as one of the bidders for the merger evaluation consulting contract, Silva said he deliberately removed himself from the process so as to not “taint” the results. And because the idea of a merger had been so contentious in the past, HFD invited Dukes to be part of the panel. HFD also recruited Au, who Silva said was a former city attorney and “doesn’t have an ax to grind one way or the other.”

Silva said he heard “grumbling” immediately following the decision but was never made aware of any formal protests. He said the frustrations arose after Perkins and Dukes picked different winners and Au’s scoresheet finished in a tie. Au was asked to revise his scoresheet to eliminate the tie.

“The emails that we saw, ‘Oh my gosh, you manipulated the process. You made the guy change his score.’ Please,” Silva said, dismissing the allegations. “We said, ‘Look, take a look at it again. If you can, make a selection on who you think the best company would be.’ And so he had made his selection and it came out that it was ESCI. And that’s how you had two for (ESCI), and one for somebody else.”

Silva said the consultant’s work was vindicated when Honolulu’s auditor found operational problems in the Emergency Services Department in an audit released last December.

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