The federal investigation into Honolulu’s rail project has officially hit Honolulu Hale.
Officials investigating the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation have either seized or requested information from the city, the mayor’s communications director Andrew Pereira confirmed.
Civil Beat repeatedly asked Pereira since Tuesday if the city received any search warrants or subpoenas related to rail. Just before 3 p.m. on Friday, he emailed a response to that question with one word.
It’s the first public confirmation that federal agents are including Honolulu Hale in their review of potential criminal activity in the rail project.
By phone on Friday, Pereira said he didn’t know if the contact with the feds took the form of one or multiple search warrants or subpoenas. Even if he did, he said the city won’t be sharing many details.
“The U.S. Department of Justice attorneys don’t want us to reveal too much information on the subpoenas, even the number that we’ve received,” he said. “They’re hoping we can not reveal or say too much about that.”
Asked why prosecutors would instruct the city not to share that information, Pereira said he didn’t know. He followed up with an emailed statement.
“The city declines to comment further at this time regarding search warrants or subpoenas, but rest assured the city is cooperating with the authorities in their investigation,” he wrote.
He refused to even say whether the feds asked for documents, interviews or both.
The secrecy contrasts with earlier relative openness from the city and HART when it comes to federal investigations.
In January, Mayor Kirk Caldwell stood before news cameras and told a roomful of reporters that his Corporation Counsel Donna Leong had received a federal target letter and that the city’s information technology department had been raided by the FBI.
A month later, HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins held a press conference to talk about a subpoena the feds issued to his agency. He even shared copies of the subpoena with the media.
Pereira’s confirmation is a turnaround from earlier this week when he said he was “not aware” of any city employees or agencies receiving rail-related subpoenas other than those already sent to HART.
“Earlier this week I had not been briefed on the subject matter,” he said in an email.
Apparently city council members weren’t briefed either.
City Councilman Ron Menor spoke on Tuesday as if the city were bracing for future contact with the feds – something that “could” happen, but hadn’t yet. He had just come out of a closed-door committee meeting with the Corporation Counsel’s office.
“We need to anticipate that their investigation will entail attempting to obtain additional information about the rail project from city employees and personnel,” Menor said.
According to Amanda Pearson Suyat, who works for Councilman Tommy Waters, the Corporation Counsel’s office did not inform council members that the city had already received a demand for rail-related information – even as the department was asking a council committee to approve the hiring of an outside defense firm.
Ultimately, the council’s executive matters and legal affairs committee struck down a proposal to retain the law firm Farella Braun and Martel to represent the city, its officers and employees in the rail probe. The request from Caldwell’s administration was defeated 4-3.
Council Chair Ikaika Anderson declined to comment on what the Corporation Counsel’s office said.
“I’m not going to confirm or deny any discussion that took place in executive session,” he said.
Menor and other council members did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday afternoon.
The agency that oversees Honolulu’s rail construction, meanwhile, has been slapped with three subpoenas since February. Individual HART employees have also received subpoenas but officials have not revealed who or how many.
The federal investigators’ orders for information from HART were broad, covering multiple aspects of the rail project.
The first sweeping order required thousands of pages from the agency’s records on design, planning and construction work, as well as correspondence on the city’s rail-funding deal with the Federal Transit Administration. The second one called for files on HART’s relocation payments to property owners along the line.
To comply, the agency provided four terabytes of documents to the feds, Robbins said.
The third subpoena — aimed directly at HART’s board — has proven much more complicated. It demands a full and unredacted record of the board’s closed-door meetings, and there’s no exception listed for discussions that might fall under attorney-client privilege.
The board has not fully complied with that last order as its corporation counsel weighs what the board is legally obligated to provide.
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