It took about a year of arguing with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, but we finally got our hands on Ethan Ferguson’s job application.

Like many of our protracted fights with government officials over public records, what we eventually received from DLNR was both underwhelming and concerning.

Ferguson is the DLNR officer accused of sexually assaulting a teenager on the Big Island. The state had hired him despite the fact he had been fired from the Honolulu Police Department for questionable conduct with a teenage runaway.

Civil Beat asked the DLNR for Ferguson’s job application Jan. 12, shortly after he was arrested by Hawaii County police.

DLNR Building Kalanimoku Building. 16 may 2016.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources wants to keep public information about one of its employees who faces sexual assault charges private. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We wanted to know what Ferguson told DLNR about his termination from HPD as well as find out anything we could about why the state agency would give him a second chance as a law enforcement officer.

The state initially didn’t want to release Ferguson’s job application.

Not So Public

The department didn’t officially respond until July 26, more than six months after we asked for the documents. The law requires that small requests for non-voluminous records — such as this — be fulfilled within a month.

The DLNR denied the request in full, saying that releasing Ferguson’s application would infringe on his privacy rights and frustrate a legitimate government function — the latter reason being one that is frequently criticized as the most overused and abused exemption in the state’s public record law.

Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest helped us push back, and after months of back-and-forth communications, the state relented — sort of.

What was provided was far less than what we sought. Much of Ferguson’s application was redacted, including seemingly innocuous details such as whether he had a valid driver’s license or could speak a foreign language.

More salient facts were omitted too, including much of his prior work history and whether he had been convicted of a crime or been caught trying to forcefully overthrow a government.

Ethan Ferguson, who is accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl, has brought a lot of attention to the need for police reform.
Ethan Ferguson is accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl while working as a DLNR officer on the Big Island. 

“I’m at a loss to try to explain it,” Black said.

The state’s public records law specifically states that much of this information related to previous work experience and training is required to be released.

“The whole point of making those mandatory disclosures, in part, is so that people know who the government is giving jobs to,” Black said. “Are they qualified? Are we employing the right people for the right jobs?”

One of the only items that wasn’t redacted was Ferguson’s handwritten explanation for his termination from HPD: “Dismissed for false accusations of a female complaint. Case dropped. No further investigation.”

That’s a much different story than the one provided by HPD, although the police department says it already destroyed Ferguson’s disciplinary file.

All that’s publicly known about Ferguson’s discharge comes from two sentences in an annual police misconduct report submitted to the Legislature in 2013:

The officer transported a juvenile female runaway without a supervisor’s authorization and was untruthful during the investigation. It was also determined that the officer altered another officer’s name and badge number in a police log book and submitted a falsified mileage report.

Ferguson, who faces five counts of sexual assault in connection with the Big Island case after he was hired by the DLNR, is scheduled to stand trial in February.

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