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Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto was back at work Monday after a month-long suspension over allegations of improper management and possible violations of the Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act.
City officials, including Totto, have refused to provide details about why he was placed on unpaid leave for 30 days.
Documents related to the Ethics Commission’s internal investigation of Totto released Monday were heavily redacted.
Civil Beat obtained a copy of the outside investigator’s report through a public records request, but most of the salient facts were blacked out by city attorneys, including identifications of anyone else involved, details about the allegations and statements made by witnesses.
Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest Executive Director Brian Black, an expert in public records law and litigation, reviewed the investigator’s report and said the city’s redactions appear to be excessive.
He added that the city so far has failed to provide a meaningful justification for withholding information under the state’s public records law, and has relied on overly broad exemptions related to privacy and frustration of a legitimate government function.
“The information that’s provided only tells part of the story,” Black said. “There’s a lot of ambiguity that’s left because of the redactions.”
What can be gleaned from the investigator’s redacted report is that at least one person in Totto’s office complained about his management style and his recent handling of an investigation of Honolulu City Council members for possible ethics violations related to lobbyist gifts and votes cast in favor of the $6.6 billion commuter rail project.
According to the documents, an Ethics Commission employee complained that Totto seemed to be pursuing the case too doggedly despite concerns that there wasn’t enough evidence or legal grounding.
That employee reportedly feared retaliation from Totto for not cooperating in pursuing the case, which was eventually dismissed by the commission.
Laurie Wong-Nowinski was the only attorney besides Totto on the five-member Ethics Commission staff at the time.
Wong-Nowinski is no longer working for the Ethics Commission. Her last day was Thursday.
The investigator’s report questioned whether Totto’s “ego and emotions” clouded his professional judgement and if statements he made in the office caused “unnecessary anxiety” for his staff because he was sharing his personal views about individual ethics commissioners, city attorneys and other officials in the Caldwell administration.
Another allegation focused on his recent personnel evaluation by ethics commissioners. It was alleged that Totto tried to improperly obtain a transcript of those closed-door proceedings.
Ethics Commission Chairwoman Victoria Marks declined to comment Monday on Totto’s suspension or the investigator’s report. She referred questions to Deputy Corporation Counsel Ernest Nomura, who is representing the Ethics Commission.
Nomura was not available for comment. Totto also did not respond to requests for comment.
The documents include a Feb. 29 letter that Marks wrote to Totto telling him of the Ethics Commission’s unanimous decision to suspend him.
Marks’ letter included a number of remedial actions that Totto would have to take to improve office efficiency, including developing flow charts for complaints and having staff fill out timesheets that log what they’re doing every six minutes.
She also warned Totto against going after those who filed the complaint against him.
“If we learn that you retaliated in any way against any person who complained or participated in the workplace investigation, you will be disciplined further, including immediate termination,” Marks said.
“We trust that on a going forward basis, you and your team will establish, develop and maintain a workplace that is productive, proactive and positive. The Commissioners will continue to look to you to set a sound, professional and positive example for the Honolulu Ethics Commission.”
Totto has been a controversial figure during the Caldwell administration, and he’s waged a number of public fights that have drawn the ire of certain commissioners and cabinet members.
His recent suspension is the latest episode in a saga that has included an investigation of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s inaugural luau, a high-profile disagreement with the city’s top attorney and an attempt by the Ethics Commission to prevent him from talking to the media.
Read the Commission’s letter and the investigator’s report here: