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Top Hawaii officials say they knew accused rapist Ethan Ferguson had been fired by the Honolulu Police Department before offering him a job in 2013 to be a law enforcement officer on the Big Island.
They hired him anyway.
Officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the state’s human resources department say they had been told Ferguson was fired by HPD. But they say they weren’t given details.
Now, HPD says it told DLNR not to hire him.
Ferguson was charged last week with sexually assaulting a teenager at a beach park in Hilo while working as a DLNR law enforcement officer. The girl said he was wearing his uniform.
The case has caught the attention of state Sen. Will Espero, who has since embarked on a crusade for answers.
Part of his investigation has uncovered details showing that the Hawaii Human Resources Development Department was well aware Ferguson had been fired from HPD before he was hired at DLNR.
But the senator’s inquiry has also raised serious questions about just how much oversight and accountability of police officers there is in the Aloha State.
“Somebody at DLNR needs to be held accountable,” Espero said. “HPD made it clear that this person was terminated and should not be hired yet DLNR took that information and threw it out the window.”
On Jan. 11, Espero sent an email to DLNR Director Suzanne Case questioning her about the background checks her agency ran before hiring Ferguson in June 2013.
He also asked Case why DLNR did not terminate Ferguson after Civil Beat reported in February 2014 that he had been fired by HPD after falsifying reports and lying to investigators about transporting an underage runaway. Ferguson’s disciplinary file has since been destroyed.
Espero said in his email that there appeared to be a “serious flaw” in the system if fired cops could be hired by other Hawaii law enforcement agencies without more vetting.
He added that it’s important to have a database that can track all fired law enforcement officers in the state. Such a system, he said, should also include officers who were forced to resign as a result of criminal activity, bad behavior and other misconduct.
James Nishimoto, who heads the state HR department, responded to Espero’s email on Wednesday. Nishimoto told the senator that a criminal background check was performed and that no convictions against Ferguson were reported.
But Nishimoto also acknowledged that the state knew Ferguson had been fired by HPD and that the department did not provide any additional details of the termination.
Nishimoto added that follow-up reference checks had found “satisfactory work performance by the individual.” He also said his department will be revamping its hiring process in response to the Ferguson case.
“The (Department of Human Resources Development) shares your concern that our law enforcement applicant screening, selection protocols, and practices must help to ensure the hiring of staff suitable to serve and protect our families,” Nishimoto said.
Espero responded to Nishimoto the same day, copying several top officials, including Case and Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff Mike McCartney, in a message saying he was “outraged.”
“The state needs to err on the side of caution and public safety when it comes to hiring practices, and from what I know, this did not happen,” Espero said. “The state needs to explain why it hired someone who acknowledged that he was terminated by another law enforcement agency.”
Espero added that the state should consider implementing a zero tolerance attitude when it comes to hiring fired cops. He said the state shouldn’t be in the business of employing “second rate law enforcement officers.”
Neither Nishimoto or Case responded to a request for an interview.
HPD officials, on the other hand, say they told the state not to hire Ferguson.
According to a written statement from HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu, the department told the human resources division that Ferguson had been discharged and that it would not recommend his hiring.
Yu added that there was no record of the state human resources department contacting HPD for additional information.
Meanwhile, Case issued a statement late Wednesday saying that her department would be reviewing its hiring process to find areas where more scrutiny would be beneficial to get the best candidates.
“We expect all our officers and staff to operate with the highest integrity,” Case said. “Anything less is simply unacceptable, as well as unfair to the public and to DLNR.”