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In January, state emergency leaders roundly criticized the worker who errantly sent a text message warning thousands in Hawaii of an imminent ballistic missile attack as incompetent.
The so-called “Button Pusher,” they said, worried his supervisors for more than a decade, confusing drills with real-life events and making fellow Hawaii Emergency Management Agency workers uncomfortable.
Three days later, the now-fired Hawaii man disputed their account entirely. Suddenly, there were conflicting accounts regarding the monumental mishap.
It appears the public won’t find clarity on this anytime soon. Despite Gov. David Ige’s assurances that the state would restore confidence in the agency, HEMA has declined Civil Beat’s request for documentation to support its claims on the button-pusher’s job performance.
Although no media outlets have named the man, the request “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and cannot be produced,” the agency stated in a March 29 email.
HEMA’s lawyers have advised that the agency can’t release documents on job performance until after the button-pusher’s grievance process has been exhausted, according to Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, a HEMA spokesman.
“That’s just wrong,” said Brian Black, president and executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center.
“Nothing in 92F (the state open-records law) makes records confidential. Nothing requires the government to withhold information,” Black said Monday. “It says you can withhold it if you want to, but it does not say you must withhold it.”
The state’s records law requires agencies to release details on state workers who were fired or suspended once their grievance is finished — but it doesn’t stop them from releasing those details earlier if they believe it’s in the public interest, he said.
HEMA is “acting as if the law on public records that says you must produce things is saying they can’t produce it,” Black said.
Further, by arguing that the request would lead to a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” HEMA is dismissing the same public interest that it helped create when it criticized the employee as incompetent, Black said.
On Jan. 29, about two weeks after the Jan. 13 false missile alert text went out to thousands of phones across the islands, retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira released the state’s initial report on what lead up to it.
The report pointed to systemic flaws at HEMA and its State Warning Point, located inside the Diamond Head Crater. But it also took withering aim at “Employee 1” — the Button Pusher — for “poor performance” over the years.
Other Warning Point workers are “not comfortable with Employee 1 as a supervisor, two-man team, or as a part of the SWP in general,” Oliveira’s report stated. “He is does not take initiative (sic) and has to be directed before he takes action.”
The employee froze after sending the warning with a mouse-click on his computer and didn’t help other workers respond, according to the report. He was fired Jan. 26, state officials said.
“He is unable to comprehend the situation at hand and has confused real life events and drills on at least two separate occasions,” the report said. Oliveira said the worker’s poor performance had been documented.
On Feb. 2, during a daylong blitz of one-on-one media interviews, the employee disputed all the criticism levied against him.
“That wasn’t true. Everyone was working, contributing, answering phones and doing what we could to remedy the situation,” he told Civil Beat of the moments after the alert went out. “I was answering calls. We all did what we could.”
He said he doesn’t recall ever mistaking previous drills for actual events.
“There’s no documentation about that – nothing I signed off on,” he said.
He added that he was surprised to hear the claim that he had made fellow workers uncomfortable.
“I’ve always been a team player. My co-workers should have known that. I’ve sacrificed over the years to switch my work schedule for some of my co-workers,” he said. “I don’t see why all of a sudden they would say these things. It’s hurtful to read about. It’s bewildering to me where that comes from.”
Anthony, meanwhile, said he’s still trying to get documents released that are not part of the Button Pusher’s personnel file. He did not elaborate on the nature of those documents.
“I would really like to see some of that information released even if it has to be redacted,” Anthony said Thursday.
He added, however, that it’s not his decision to make unilaterally.
“I am working through that process,” Anthony said.
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