The former president of Hawaii’s statewide police union has filed a lawsuit against Honolulu Police Department Chief Susan Ballard and Civil Beat over remarks she made to the news outlet soon after she transferred him and two other police union officials to new assignments.
Tenari Maafala, who led the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers for 18 years until he retired from HPD in 2018, was moved from his job in the Peer Support Unit to a midnight patrol shift in Waikiki soon after Ballard took over as police chief in 2017. The other two members of the PSU — also high-ranking union officials — also were reassigned.
Now, Maafala contends in the lawsuit that Ballard defamed Maafala when she told Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube that she had concerns about how the unit was being run and that it had veered from its original concept as a volunteer-based program to help officers cope with stress, including line-of-duty shootings, drug abuse and domestic violence. The PSU initially had involved numerous officers helping fellow officers but in 2017 it was just the three union officials. She also raised questions about whether overtime was being used properly.
Maafala’s lawsuit alleges Civil Beat slandered and libeled him for quoting Ballard on the issue. It includes dozens of comments submitted by readers on the story as evidence that Ballard’s remarks and the story damaged Maafala’s reputation.
In addition to Ballard and Civil Beat, the lawsuit names Grube, the City and County of Honolulu and the Honolulu Police Commission. It’s not clear in the suit what the police commission’s involvement in the case is, other than Ballard mentioned the situation at a commission meeting.
In 2018, Maafala filed a complaint against Ballard with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board over his transfer. In that case he also raised concerns about her comments to Civil Beat. The labor board dismissed the complaint, saying Ballard had acted properly when she reassigned him.
Lyle Hosoda, Maafala’s attorney, did not return a call to his office seeking comment for this story. But in a letter sent to Civil Beat and the other defendants about a week before the case was filed Hosoda said Maafala wanted to reach some sort of settlement rather than proceed with the lawsuit.
“While most civil lawsuits are first and foremost about money, I can assure you this one is not,” Hosoda wrote.
However, he did not indicate what Maafala is looking for in the way of resolution.
In the letter, he implies Ballard’s decision to reassign Maafala effectively ended his career. He calls the lawsuit “bona fide and righteous.”
“Mr. Ma’afala has been and remains torn and conflicted,” the letter says, adding “He is a person of high morals and ethics. He has always followed both Man’s law and, more importantly, God’s law.”
The lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 19 in the 1st Circuit Court, said Ballard’s statements to Grube regarding the PSU and Maafala were false. SHOPO sent a letter to Ballard after the story was published asking her to retract her statements, which she did not do.
A police department spokeswoman said Friday that Ballard was out of the office for another week and unavailable to comment for this story.
Attorney Paul Alston, who is representing Civil Beat in the case, said Maafala is considered a public figure under the law and would have to prove the story was written with actual malice — “that we knew it was false or recklessly disregarded the truth.”
“There’s nothing in the complaint, nothing in the story, that could possibly justify a finding of actual malice,” Alston said, calling it “a very high bar.”
Read Lyle Hosoda’s letter to Civil Beat and other defendants:
Read the lawsuit:
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.