The former warden of the Big Island’s minimum-security prison has filed a lawsuit alleging that she was wrongfully fired from her job.

Ruth Forbes, who was appointed as warden of the Kulani Correctional Facility in December 2013, alleges that the Hawaii Department of Public Safety used “defamatory statements” made by her former subordinates as the basis for her firing.

Ruth Forbes
Ruth Forbes Hawaii Department of Public Safety

According to the lawsuit, filed Nov. 15 in the 3rd Circuit Court in Hilo, the department knew that she had been falsely accused of wrongdoing — including sexual harassment, payroll and procurement violations, and working while under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Still, Forbes alleges that the department “turned a blind eye toward the manufactured evidence against the plaintiff and used any and all means to terminate her.”

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit — which lists the department and its director, Nolan Espinda, as well as Forbes’ former subordinates, as defendants.

“We have been advised to reserve comment until we have been officially served with a lawsuit and our legal counsel has had a chance to look it over,” Schwartz said.

Kulani Prison near Hilo, July 1, 2014.
The Hawaii Department of Public Safety reopened the Kulani Correctional Facility on the Big Island in 2014, when Ruth Forbes was serving as its warden. Hawaii Department of Public Safety

Forbes, who oversaw what she describes as the “herculean and unprecedented task” of reopening Kulani in July 2014 — five years after the prison was closed as a cost-cutting measure by then-Gov. Linda Lingle — alleges that her firing was instigated by a group of disgruntled employees.

In the lawsuit, Forbes singles out three of her former subordinates — Samantha Bechert, Robert Castro and Gordlynn Ann Dias.

According to the lawsuit, the employees made audio and video recordings of Forbes, “seeking to exploit the plaintiff’s emotional vulnerability of going through a divorce, to have her terminated.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Castro wrote two letters following his resignation in December 2014, accusing Forbes “of threatening him, harassing him and creating a hostile work environment.”

But Castro’s accusations, the lawsuit alleges, were a “pretext to cover up his incompetence and poor work performance.”

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety “turned a blind eye toward the manufactured evidence against the plaintiff and used any and all means to terminate her.”

Still, the “false charges” led the department to launch an investigation into Forbes’ conduct and place her on unpaid leave in January 2015.

Dias, meanwhile, had what Forbes describes as “an ongoing personal affair” with an inmate — a prison gang leader — and resented an order that he be kept out of Kulani’s administrative office.

“That inmate was particularly dangerous because it was known that he was a gang leader who actively sought to take control of the leadership of the inmate population,” the lawsuit says.

In March 2015, the lawsuit alleges, Dias was caught on video passing her love letter to the inmate — a blatant violation of the department’s regulations.

Still, the department allowed Dias to resign “under questionable circumstances,” while continuing the investigation into Forbes’ conduct and ultimately firing her in December.

Forbes, who is seeking reinstatement to her job, as well as compensatory and punitive damages, alleges that her firing was the culmination of a concerted campaign to oust her.

“From the moment the facility reopened, disgruntled subordinates and the (Department of Public Safety) administration threw up roadblocks, manipulated departmental procedures and deliberately and intentionally exaggerated complaints in an effort to have the plaintiff terminated,” the lawsuit says.

About the Author