The man who is second in command of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation was until earlier this year a vice president with CH2M Hill, the company that recently edged out other bidders for a $46.1 million engineering contract for the Honolulu rail project that HART is overseeing.

But HART officials say Deputy Executive Director Brennon Morioka had no involvement with the agency’s decision to award the contract to his former employer.

Morioka was previously vice president of CH2M Hill’s operations in Honolulu, and had signed a $3 million hazardous materials consulting contract in 2012 to work on the rail project, according to HART contract documents.

But Morioka left CH2M Hill in February for a job with HART. Morioka, who was former Gov. Linda Lingle‘s transportation department director, is now second in command at HART behind Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas.

Morioka’s new job means he’s now intimately involved in managing many facets of the $5.26 billion rail project, a project that he was once on the other side of as a private contractor.

But Morioka must comply with a number of ethical standards to avoid any conflicts of interest, and rail officials say he’s doing just that.

HART officials say Morioka was not allowed to have any involvement in the recent CH2M Hill general engineering consulting contract. And, as a deputy director, state procurement laws prohibited him from being on any of the scoring committees that ultimately decided the firm would get the contract.

Ethics rules also prohibit Morioka from having any involvement in the hazardous materials work that CH2M Hill was involved in for at least one year after his hiring date. This is commonly referred to as a cooling-off period.

“To avoid being placed in even an appearance of conflict, Brennon will not be involved in any CH2M Hill contracts until the one-year period has expired,” Grabauskas said in a statement to Civil Beat.

HART officials added that Morioka also was not involved in CH2M Hill’s recent proposal to become the engineering consultant before he left the company.

Close relationships are nothing new for Honolulu’s controversial rail project. Former Honolulu Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka came under scrutiny while working for the city because of his previous employment at Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the largest contractors working on the project.

Yoshioka has held a cabinet-level position and was heavily involved in rail since before HART became a semi-autonomous agency that would oversee the project.

Rail critics also pointed out to then-Mayor Peter Carlisle that Yoshioka’s wife was also working at Parsons Brinckerhoff at the time, and that another major contractor on rail, InfraConsult, was created by three former Parsons Brinckerhoff employees.

Yoshioka dismissed any suggestions that he gave the companies special treatment as “absolutely absurd.” He now works for AECOM, another major contractor on the rail project that has about $112 million in HART contracts.

Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto said conflicts of interest arise all the time in city government. That’s why it’s important for officials to submit annual financial interest disclosures that can help the city avoid questionable scenarios. (See accompanying story.

“The purpose of the ethics law is to maintain and foster the public’s trust in government,” Totto said. “One of the concerns that people have — and it’s a reasonable concern — involves someone who comes into government at a high level position as a director or deputy director from the private sector.”

He said that even if an individual has a continuing financial interest in their old company, such as through stock options, that the personal relationships with the prior employee can raise various conflict of interest questions. That’s why the one-year cooling off period was inserted into the ethics law to help alleviate some of the concern, he said.

“It’s basically just to give a sense of protection to the public,” Totto said. “So that if someone comes in they won’t be favoring their prior employer for a year at least.”

Morioka’s cooling off period doesn’t end until February 2014. He also disclosed on his annual financial interest disclosure form that he used to work for CH2M Hill, but did not list any continuing compensation from the company.

CH2M Hill beat out Parsons Brinckerhoff and KSL Industries to win the general engineering consultant contract. Parson Brinckerhoff has held that contract since the beginning of the project. It has $468.7 million in rail contracts.

You can see both Morioka and Grabauskas’ financial disclosure statements here:

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