A Senate committee investigating violence, nepotism and mismanagement at the Hawaii State Hospital announced its first round of subpoenas Wednesday along with a stern warning to top administrators that any form of retaliation against employees called to testify will not be tolerated.
Sen. Clayton Hee, who co-chairs the committee with Sen. Josh Green, said he’s already been contacted by state hospital workers who are worried about backlash from their superiors if they comply with the investigation into corruption and poor conditions at the facility.
Hee said he was specifically concerned about the clerks who keep the hospital’s books, and noted that he intends to have them testify under oath about what exactly it is that’s taking place at the hospital.
“I want to make this clear,” Hee said. “If there is any retaliation this committee will be informed of the retaliation and there will be an explanation required.”
Green echoed Hee’s concern after the Wednesday’s hearing saying the committee would have “zero tolerance” for any form of retaliatory behavior.
But Green also warned that the repercussions could be severe for anyone who tries to manipulate the inquiry by threatening the workers who have been subpoenaed.
“If I personally uncover any example of retaliation,” Green said, “I will ask for the immediate resignation of that individual who retaliated against someone. Immediate.”
These comments set the tone for what is shaping up to be an uncomfortable inquiry into the inner workings of the Hawaii State Hospital.
The hearings are expected to last for months, partially because the Legislature is in session, but also because the senators plan to take a hard look at how Hawaii treats its mentally ill while protecting the workers whose job it is to provide that treatment.
The committee was formed after several Hawaii State Hospital workers went to the press about conditions at the facility that have resulted in staff being assaulted by patients, many of whom have been committed to the facility through the court system.
Based on the data that has been released, assaults at the hospital occur once every four days. Between 2006 and 2013, there were 1,207 attacks on hospital workers, although the incidents range from spitting in someone’s face to punching and kicking.
Other serious allegations that have surfaced include accusations of nepotism and whether employees have been hired, promoted or given raises based on their relationships with administrators and allegations of overtime abuse, some of which is said to have taken place off the books.
Wednesday’s hearing only lasted 30 minutes and was held mainly to set the ground rules for the inquiry. The committee also released the names of the individuals it planned to subpoena for a March 27 hearing.
The first round will include several people who have already been grilled by Hee and other committees in prior hearings related to the hospital, including the facility’s top administrator, Bill Elliott, who was scolded by Hee in a previous meeting for being evasive while answering questions.
Also being called to testify is Department of Health Director Linda Rosen. She was recently appointed to that position by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to replace Loretta Fuddy, who died in a plane crash off the coast of Molokai in December.
Hee said during Wednesday’s hearing that Department of Public Safety Director Ted Saiki should also be prepared to be subpoenaed.
Many others will be compelled to testify before the committee or provide information. Hee said all testifiers and documents will be subpoenaed as a matter of record, “No exceptions.”
Bringing Up the Past
The investigation will follow a 1991 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, and whether conditions of that consent decree are being met.
That DOJ investigation into conditions at the hospital found that the state had violated the constitutional rights of Hawaii’s mentally ill patients for a number of problems related to undue restraint, failure to properly provide medication and understaffing.
But as Hee noted Wednesday, the state has struggled to live up to its end of the agreement, resulting in ongoing federal oversight through the administrations of former governors John Waihee, Ben Cayetano and Linda Lingle.
The senator now suspects that many of the compliance issues outlined in the consent decree, particularly those related to staffing, are not resolved, although he acknowledges the current situation has its own nuances that must be addressed.
“My guess is that there are areas that the hospital has brought into compliance, but I have a very strong suspicion that in other areas they are not in compliance,” Hee said after the hearing. “What we need to do is understand the gravity of their noncompliant decisions and if necessary we may need to engage in the dialogue necessary to either work a memorandum of understanding going forward or even call upon the federal government to assist us.”
But, he added, those decisions won’t come until the Senate investigation is complete.