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As Ethan Ferguson awaits trial on multiple sex assault charges on the Big Island, state Sen. Will Espero has continued his quest for more clarity on how Ferguson could have been hired as a state law enforcement officer in the first place.
So far, Espero’s efforts have resulted in the public revelation that officials at the state Department of Human Resources Development knew that Ferguson had been fired from the Honolulu Police Department in 2012 for misconduct, but that they approved his hiring in 2013 anyway.
Espero is no stranger to the often headline-grabbing events involving Hawaii’s police departments, especially the HPD. For the past four years, he has been a leading voice for more transparency and accountability by police. He’s repeatedly introduced legislation that would bring stronger oversight to police departments and officers, including misconduct.
But his efforts have gained little traction in prior legislative sessions. This year, however, the move toward getting tougher on cops seems to be gaining momentum, largely because of a spate of misconduct by HPD officers over the past year.
And then came the arrest of Ferguson on sex assault charges, just as the legislative session was beginning. Both the public and the politicians were astounded that a cop could be fired by one local agency for bad behavior then hired by another.
Espero’s most recent inquiries are now raising even more questions about how that happened and the apparent lack of communication between HPD and the state when it came to checking up on Ferguson’s background.
Deputy Police Chief Marie McCauley initially told Espero in a Jan. 13 email that her department had recommended against hiring Ferguson when asked by state officials if he was a suitable candidate to work as a Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officer.
McCauley also said that to the best of her knowledge no one from the state had followed up with HPD to get more details about Ferguson’s termination.
But a recent email exchange between Espero and James Nishimoto, the state’s human resources director, indicates otherwise. Nishimoto told Espero that the state did in fact follow up with HPD, but that the department refused to provide any details about Ferguson’s termination.
“Right now it’s a he said, she said thing,” Espero said Tuesday. “It’s one department saying one thing and one agency saying another thing. At the end of the day, though, DHRD never should have hired this individual based on the information that they did have.”
State and HPD officials have kept quiet about Ferguson ever since he was arrested last month on suspicion of sexually assaulting a teenage girl while he was in uniform.
Ferguson was fired in 2012 after lying to investigators and falsifying reports about transporting an underage runaway without a supervisor’s permission. But details about his termination have been hard to come by.
HPD destroyed his disciplinary file — a public record — before revealing in 2014 that he had been fired after a lengthy grievance proceeding. Officials at the department have refused to discuss his termination or the circumstances surrounding it.
Likewise, state officials are reticent to talk. Internal investigations are underway at DLNR and Ferguson has been placed on paid administrative leave.
All the silence has left Espero as the main conduit of information to the public about Ferguson and what the state is doing to respond to what looks like a serious lapse in judgment.
Espero, who is the vice chair of the Senate public safety committee, says it’s a role he takes seriously, especially when government officials aren’t doing a good job of sharing information or holding themselves accountable.
This is particularly true when it comes to police matters, Espero said.
He points to several measures working through the Legislature that aim to improve civilian oversight of state and county police officers, whether by outfitting them with body cameras or making public their misconduct.
“We need to speak out,” Espero said. “It’s the right thing to do, and we are asking questions to hold people accountable. I’m working to improve government and to make law enforcement better to benefit the officers and the general public.”
Espero’s most recent revelations come from emails between him and Nishimoto that took place between Jan. 25 and Feb. 5.
The exchange sheds more light on how Ferguson came to be hired as a DLNR officer despite his termination from HPD. It also contradicts the story put forth by HPD officials about its communication with the state’s human resources department.
On April 12, 2013, the Department of Human Resources Development sent an employment voucher to the Honolulu Police Department to find out if Ferguson was a good fit to work as a conservation and resources enforcement officer.
A copy of the voucher Nishimoto gave to Espero shows that an HPD employee — whose name is redacted from the document — told the human resources department that Ferguson was discharged from HPD and that he was not recommended for hire by the state.
Nishimoto told Espero that a DHRD employee called the ranking officer listed on the voucher to get specific details about Ferguson’s termination, and that HPD refused to release the information because the officer said standard procedure was not to disclose the reason for someone’s discharge.
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said that the department does not have any record of being contacted by the state’s human resources department regarding Ferguson after initially sending the paperwork recommending he not be hired.
“In hindsight, a different conclusion regarding the suitability for employment would likely have been made.” — James Nishimoto, state human resources director
Nishimoto said a human resources staffer then contacted a representative of the state police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, to get more information about Ferguson’s case since it was part of a pending grievance. Ferguson had told the state that he did not have a copy of his termination letter because neither HPD or SHOPO would give him one.
According to Nishimoto, the police union told DHRD that Ferguson’s termination was based on allegations of “not following procedures.”
“SHOPO was contacted in an effort to secure a copy of Mr. Ferguson’s termination letter given his grievance,” Nishimoto wrote to Espero. “SHOPO would not say when they would resolve his grievance as the complainant against Mr. Ferguson did not follow up on her complaint and she could not be reached for a period of 1.5 years.”
Nishimoto did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Neither did SHOPO President Tenari Maafala.
The state decided to hire Ferguson despite the pending union action. Nishimoto said his department had also received an “excellent review” from a Las Vegas employer who had hired him as a security agent for 13 months after his termination. That employer had recommended him for hire to the state.
Nishimoto noted in his email to Espero that his department told DLNR that Ferguson was “suitable for hire” based on the response from his Las Vegas employer and the fact that he had no convictions in the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center or the Hawaii Sex Offender Registry.
But Espero still wanted to know from Nishimoto why his termination from HPD wasn’t enough to disqualify him for the law enforcement position with the state.
“Shouldn’t the notice of termination from HPD have been the primary fact-check which would exclude him from any state job?” the senator asked.
“In hindsight,” Nishimoto said, “… a different conclusion regarding the suitability for employment would likely have been made.”