After initially declining to provide details about Russell Yamanoha’s exit, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has now confirmed the agency’s former media specialist was fired.

Yamanoha was terminated on Oct. 2, HART spokesman Bill Brennan said in an email last week. About a month prior to his firing, Yamanoha pleaded guilty to misdemeanor conspiracy in a 2015 union vote-rigging scheme unrelated to the rail transit project.

Initially, HART appeared to support Yamanoha staying on board. Executive Director Andrew Robbins said in September that he saw no immediate reason for him to leave the agency, which has seen intense public scrutiny over its handling of rail as costs nearly doubled.

Several weeks later, when it became clear Yamanoha had departed, Robbins declined to say whether he was fired or left voluntarily.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins press conference at Alii Place wide.
HART’s former media specialist, Russell Yamanoha stands directly next to Executive Director Andrew Robbins, recording comments at a press conference earlier this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The state’s public records law requires agencies such as HART to disclose firings and the reasons behind them 30 days after it becomes final in cases of misconduct.

On Friday, Brennan said that no misconduct by Yamanoha was involved in his firing and so the public records law mandating disclosure didn’t apply.

Indeed, Robbins said in September that Yamanoha was doing a “good job” for HART and that the rail agency was being advised to keep Yamanoha on board at least until his sentencing, which hasn’t occurred yet.

Robbins also declined at the time to say who was advising the agency on the matter.

He was not available to comment last week, so it’s not clear why he reversed his decision on Yamanoha’s employment at HART.

Yamanoha declined to comment.

A ‘Poor Decision’

Yamanoha joined HART in 2017. He often served as a liaison to local members of the press, although Robbins stressed after the plea deal that Yamanoha was never actually an agency spokesman.

Meanwhile, HART has faced heavy public scrutiny over its management of the controversial transit project as estimated costs went from over $5 billion in 2012 to more than $9 billion currently. Both state and local lawmakers have repeatedly called for greater transparency into the agency’s workings.

Yamanoha, a former sportscaster, is now slated to be sentenced Feb. 24 in U.S. District Court after agreeing to testify against Brian Ahakuelo, his former boss at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260. He faces a fine of up to $10,000 and up to a year in jail.

The election rigging on Guam aimed to raise union dues, according to court documents.

During his pre-HART tenure at the IBEW, Yamanoha made a “poor decision” in following Ahakuelo’s demands to help rig the vote, father-in-law Thomas Sumida, wrote to the court in support for Yamanoha ahead of his sentencing. His son-in-law did so out of a “zealous effort to protect and provide” for his daughters, Sumida wrote.

Despite his participation in the scheme, Yamanoha attempted to neutralize its impacts on the election by equally marking ballots “for” and “against,” Sumida added.

Several HART employees, including Brennan, also wrote letters in support of Yamanoha ahead of his sentencing.

“From the day he started to work at HART, Russ was a team favorite,” Brennan wrote to the court. “His work ethic was above reproach. Russ would work nights. He would work weekends. He would drive to Kapolei and beyond. His disposition was cheerful and fun-loving.”

Veteran Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Stephen Tsai and former KITV-4 Island News anchor Robert Kekaula also wrote character references supporting the former sportscaster.

“If I’m in a bind and need help. In my mind I know if I picked up the phone and called Russell, he’d dropped (sic) whatever he was doing to assist,” wrote Kekaula, who serves as KITV’s managing editor. He worked with Yamanoha at another local station, KHNL.

“No question, I’d do the same for him,” Kekaula wrote.

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