- Special Projects
A scathing opinion issued by the Hawaii Supreme Court at the end of last week blasted Honolulu officials for blacklisting two veteran professional stagehands in August 2007 following a run-in with then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s older brother, Nephi.
The incident happened during a rehearsal for a benefit concert in which a performance by the mayor was to be featured.
The opinion provides an unusually candid and unflattering behind the scenes look at the Hannemann administration, and comes at an awkward time for the former mayor, who is rumored to be preparing to take another plunge into politics in 2014.
The court’s decision came in a lawsuit brought by Eric Minton and Richard Stanley, professional stagehands with nearly 75 years of experience between them, not to mention many rave reviews from prior clients. Named as defendants, along with the city, are Sidney Quintal, former director of the Department of Enterprise Services, and John Fuhrmann, who was in charge of daily operations at the city-owned facilities.
The men were barred from working in city facilities, and the city told groups or promoters who wanted to hire them to find other stagehands to do their jobs.
The court ruled the blacklisting violated the men’s constitutional rights, found they had not been provided due process, and ruled that the evidence properly demonstrated the city’s action had resulted in the loss of a significant part of their incomes.
The court called the city’s action “particularly egregious” because it effectively destroyed the men’s livelihoods by banning them for life from the premier entertainment venues, Blaisdell Center and the Waikiki Shell, without any intention of providing due process.
Although the city argued the men could still work in other venues, the court noted they were experts in the types of large productions that typically exceed the capacity of other, smaller theaters. Barring them from the city’s main venues essentially meant they could not practice their professions, the court found.
The unanimous Supreme Court ruling is unusual because it overturned the decision of the Intermediate Court of Appeals, which was also unanimous in upholding a Circuit Court ruling in favor of the city.
The Supreme Court ordered the case returned to the Circuit Court for further proceedings, largely confined to determining the final amount of damages the city will have to pay.
The loss of work caused by the city’s blacklisting forced Minton to leave Hawaii. For a while he lived with his daughter on the mainland, and now lives alone in a small trailer in Las Vegas, according to Honolulu attorney Charles Lotsof, who represented the men. Stanley lost between 75 percent and 90 percent of his income as a result of being blacklisted, according to evidence cited in the Supreme Court opinion. Their total loss of pay was estimated at over $700,000, according to expert testimony cited by the court.
Taxpayers will also likely have to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees and costs as well, and those costs could also be substantial. Lotsof said it took “six years of very intensive work.”
“I’ve got file cabinets full of documents from this case,” the attorney said.
Lotsof says he is still puzzled why the Hannemann administration went forward with imposing the lifetime bans.
“Anybody with any experience in government knows blacklisting private employees is something you can’t do,” Lotsof said. “It should have been stopped right in the bud.”
Although the city owns the Blaisdell Center and the Waikiki Shell, it does not provide the back stage workers required to put on events. Instead, it refers promoters to Local Union 665 of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents stage and theater workers.
Minton, who usually functioned as a crew chief, would routinely direct the actions of the stagehands who move scenery, adjust lighting, control the sound system, and perform other tasks. The court noted that Minton had about 50 years of experience, and had been a member of the local union since 1972. Stanley is a sound engineer who at the time had about 23 years experience.
Both men were selected by the union to work a fundraiser for the Aloha Medical Mission scheduled for the NBC concert hall on August 18, 2007. The event was billed as “Four Doctors, A Patient, and the Mayor.” It promised various performers, including a solo performance by Mayor Hannemann.
Promoters of events at Blaisdell Center can choose to use the city’s sound system or bring their own. According to the opinion, the Blaisdell’s system at the time was “at least 20 years old,” with limited capabilities, and it was prone to breaking down. But the medical mission event was being run on a very limited budget, so they chose to use the house equipment, including several Sony wireless microphones. Minton then warned the promoter against using the Sony mics, calling them “low quality and unsuitable.” Based on that advice, the promoter obtained four wireless microphones from an outside vendor.
Due to the budget concerns, the event was going ahead with a “short crew” of just six stagehands instead of the 16 to 20 people that would have been normal. And to further keep spending down, they scheduled just three rehearsals, one on the same day as the event, whereas similar shows would have “at least five rehearsals” with the stage crew.
The mayor attended the second rehearsal, accompanied by his brother, Nephi Hannemann, who quickly started making demands of the crew.
For example, Nephi told the stage crew to move the theater’s cyclorama, a large, 2,000-pound screen that images are projected on. Minton said he politely informed Nephi that with only two men available, the screen could not be moved.
“According to Minton, Nephi responded by commenting that Minton ‘didn’t want to do any work.’”
Nephi also complained about the sound system, saying, “He wanted a sound system comparable to that used by the Society of Seven.”
The night before the event, the mayor held another, unscheduled, rehearsal. Neither the promoter nor the stage crews were informed and none were present.
The final rehearsal took place the next morning, the day of the show, and the promoter was told that a five-piece band, including two guitars, a bass guitar, keyboard, and additional drum set, had been added to back up the mayor’s performance. The last-minute shift disrupted all the crew’s plans, which now had to be revised to handle additional microphones, microphone inputs, and staging. To handle the new load, the city’s wireless microphones had to be pressed into service, despite the crew’s misgivings.
During this final rehearsal, Nephi Hannemann again was hassling the crew. He wanted the piano moved so that the mayor could perform at center stage. Minton explained this could not be done because it would cause the piano to go out of tune, and Nephi again made “a very nasty comment” that Minton was trying to avoid working.
Crewmember Matthew Lyons, who had 30 years experience, said Nephi told him and another stagehand to move the microphones for the mayor’s performance. Lyons later testified that when they responded that the situation was “under control,” Nephi “came back at me like I was trying to pick a fight with him or something,” and Nephi “wanted to actually take me outside and fight me.” Instead, Lyons told him to “go outside and take a breath.”
The concert went ahead as scheduled. There were a few glitches, including a couple of seconds when Mayor Hannemann’s city-owned wireless microphone went dead, possibly because he went beyond the device’s maximum wireless range.
Another problem during the mayor’s song occurred when one of the guitars went dead after its connection failed, which the court attributed to “the additional input demands from the mayor’s back-up band.” Lyons, the stagehand who had already clashed with Nephi Hannemann, had to go onstage to check the problem, retrieve an extra cable, and replace the connection. Lyons was wearing one of the black T-shirts with the event logo provided by the promoter, which all the crew members had been asked to wear.
A few days after the show, the promoter sent an email to the union’s business agent asking what had caused the various problems with the sound system. It did not mention Minton or Stanley, and focused on the sound system. An exchange of emails satisfied the promoter, who later testified he thought the city’s system just couldn’t handle the extra microphones. All in all, he said it was “a good show.”
But a week after the event, and a few days after the promoter’s email, Mayor Hannemann summoned Fuhrmann and Quintal, the city officials, to his office for a meeting, where the mayor made a complaint. According to Furhmann, “he was very unhappy with what happened at the show.”
Fuhrmann later testified the mayor specifically mentioned Minton and Stanley, and repeated several issues Nephi had raised during the rehearsals.
“The Mayor also stated that Minton was ‘rude and … improperly dressed’ because he was in a T-shirt on stage in a public arena where people could see him,” apparently unaware that the stagehands had been instructed to wear those shirts by the promoter of the event.
Neither Fuhrmann nor Quintal had been at the concert. Fuhrmann was asked to investigate, but did not speak to either Minton or Stanley, and did not watch an available recording of the event.
But the following week, Quintal and Fuhrmann met with the union’s president and business agent, and informed them Minton and Stanley would no longer be permitted to work at Blaisdell or the Shell. When the union reps asked how long the ban would last, Quintal said he would “get back to them on that.” He never did.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in June 2013, one of the justices asked the city’s attorney, Curtis Sherwood, if the two were still barred from the facilities. The answer: “Yes.”
The city has argued that politics wasn’t involved, although Hannemann was well into his 2008 reelection campaign, and the mayor’s performances were prominently featured at campaign events and were a key part of his public persona.
Another exchange during the oral arguments showed members of the court were extremely skeptical. One justice asked how the city could say Minton and Stanley were fairly treated when they were not told that the mayor had complained about them. The complaint, which started as a technical issue relating to the sound system had morphed into charges of unprofessional conduct, and the men were given no chance to respond.
Sherwood responded: “If the mayor had played a role in the decision, then I would agree with you it was unfair, but we had testimony at the trial level that the mayor did not play a role in the decision ….”
The justice followed-up quickly: “Who called the meeting with the mayor?” referring to the meeting at which Hannemann made his complaints clear.
There was a pregnant pause. Then Sherwood replied, “I believe it was the mayor, your honor.”
Another clearly skeptical justice jumped in, repeating a simple question.
“So you don’t believe politics intruded at all?”
“I don’t believe so,” Sherwood replied after a pause.
The awkward silence that followed was broken when Sherwood changed the subject and went on.
Charles Lotsof, the plaintiffs’ attorney, told the court that, in the end, it’s the city’s reputation that has been damaged.
“The reputation of the city for open, transparent government is ruined by this kind of situation,” Lotsof told the court. “Everybody knows that there’s implications that the mayor’s brother was mad, he tried to go outside with another stagehand … the implication is that there’s something going on beyond what’s open, and what’s showed, and what’s going on is the problem with this case.
Given testimony concerning the involvement of Mayor Hannemann and his brother, Lotsof said: “It looks bad, and makes the city look so bad.”