State senators are considering using their subpoena power to compel testimony regarding one of Gov. David Ige’s cabinet members.

In late December the governor renominated Nolan Espinda for a second term as director of the state Department of Public Safety.

But concerns about Espinda’s management of the department, which includes overseeing the state’s four jails and four prisons, has raised concerns about whether the senators are able to learn the facts about what has occurred during the four years he has been director.

Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chair of the five-member Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs Committee, said Monday he has not yet made a decision on whether to subpoena potential testifiers.

“I had considered that but I have not made that final decision,” said Nishihara. “I am trying to see if I can get more information if it is required.”

Director Public Safety Nolan Espinda and Gov David Ige announcing a new $525 million OCCC replacement in Halawa on the site of the animal quarantine area.
Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, left, and Gov. David Ige at last year’s announcement of a proposed $525 million replacement for Oahu’s jail. Ige has expressed confidence in Espinda’s reconfirmation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nishihara said issuing subpoenas is rare and that he had never issued one in his 14 years in the Senate.

But Sen. Breene Harimoto, another member of the public safety committee, said he thinks subpoenas may be necessary in the case of Espinda.

“It is no secret that I have concerns (about Espinda) based on what I have been hearing from different sources, so that is public knowledge,” Harimoto said Monday. “These things are difficult. Some might characterize this as a ‘he said, she said’ kind of thing, or that it’s about disgruntled employees. But my gut feeling is that there is enough there that I am concerned, and I am hoping there is way we can confirm some concerns. I support subpoenaing testifiers.”

Nishihara said his interest in the Espinda confirmation centered on management of state correctional facilities and “the various offices” that fall under the department.

“I think that that is the primary basis of that,” he said, referring to the confirmation process. “If we find anything more troubling than that, then that’s another question. But I think he deserves a fair hearing. We want to be able to vet it.”

Sen Clarence NIshihara Cop camera conf commitee1. 26 april 2016.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara at a hearing in 2016. The chair of the public safety committee said members had not yet decided whether to use subpoena power in the Espinda confirmation process. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Espinda said in an emailed statement Tuesday, “I look forward to the Senate confirmation process, which allows for an open discussion of any pertinent issues.”

A confirmation hearing for Espinda has not yet been scheduled. Nishihara said he was not sure when he would hold one.

“We have some time yet,” he said.

A Troubled System

In addition to the jails and prisons, the public safety department oversees the Law Enforcement Division, which includes Narcotics Enforcement and the Sheriff Division.

Hawaii’s correctional system has long been rife with problems. It includes the overcrowded and dilapidated Oahu Community Correctional Center, which has prompted the state to look to relocate and rebuild a new jail in Halawa Valley on Oahu. Another issue is the housing of more than 1,400 Hawaii prisoners at a privately run facility in Arizona.

When the department is in the news, it is rarely positive. In July, for example, Espinda apologized for the mistaken release of a murder suspect from a Big Island jail.

Last year, a legislative task force recommended the state move away from incarceration in favor of rehabilitation. The Hawaii Legislature this year is considering a number of measures to reform the state’s criminal justice system.

There are also bills this session calling for a comprehensive performance audit of the public safety department. Last year, a similar audit bill died in the last days of session.

Hawaii News Now reported that the audit was prompted “following several complaints of discrimination, retaliation and mismanagement at the agency.”

WAM Sen Breene Harimoto questions HART team as Sen Donna Mercado Kim looks on during legislature extended session held at the Capitol auditorium.
Sen. Breene Harimoto at a 2017 hearing at the Capitol. He wants to use subpoenas to bring forth testimony on Nolan Espinda. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Espinda’s nomination is one of several Ige appointments that were in trouble as the session opened. Ige has defended Espinda and two other nominees.

Will Espero, a former state senator who was Nishihara’s predecessor as public safety committee chair, said he has concerns about Espinda’s tenure.

“I wasn’t satisfied at the pace he was going on in reforms, and in my opinion he was even dragging his feet and that he could have done a lot more,” said Espero. “If I was there today, I don’t know whether I would support him for a second appointment.”

Nishihara was asked if he had confidence in Espinda. He said that the committee had heard concerns about the nominee but he declined to provide details.

Nishihara said if the committee does decide to use its subpoena power to draw out testimony that might otherwise never be heard, he expected it would happen in public.

“But we are not there yet,” he said. “Even discussion of subpoenas — the committee has not been told it needs to do that. It has not got there yet.”

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