More than a year after three high-ranking Honolulu officials went on paid administrative leave amid their involvement in a federal investigation, the city won’t say how much longer it expects to continue paying them.
Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chasid Sapolu and Corporation Counsel Donna Leong have all been off the job since shortly after they received letters from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The city says it has no policy limiting the length of time an employee can be on paid leave, according to Alexander Zannes, the mayor’s communications director.
“Personnel actions are considered on a case-by-case basis,” Zannes said by email.
Kaneshiro, Sapolu and Leong are among seven city employees on paid administrative leave pending investigations into alleged misconduct or following a complaint, according to the city. The length of the leave among this group ranges from a few weeks to nearly two years.
The cases raise questions about how the city should weigh the interests of employees – who are presumed innocent – with the interests of taxpayers.
It’s a tough balance, said Honolulu City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson.
“Our country’s justice system is based on the promise that the accused is innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to convict someone in the court of public opinion by forcing them out of a job that is putting food on their table and a roof over their head.”
However, there are limits. Anderson said an elected official like Kaneshiro has no business taking paid leave, and he would have let Leong go by now.
“I would’ve worked out something to cut her loose, as hard as that would’ve been,” he said.
In December 2018, Sapolu announced he was a “subject” in an FBI investigation of the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the police department – the probe that has resulted in the criminal convictions of former prosecutor Katherine Kealoha and former police chief Louis Kealoha. Sapolu first used vacation days, according to the city, but later went on paid administrative leave.
Within weeks, Leong, the city’s top civil attorney, received notice that she was a target in the same investigation and started paid administrative leave on Jan. 15, 2019. Kaneshiro also received a target letter and announced his temporary leave on March 7, 2019.
Leong took in $219,295 from the start of her leave through April 30, according to the city. As of May 1, she is using accrued vacation days. When those are gone, she will be on unpaid administrative leave, according to Zannes.
Regarding Kaneshiro, Zannes at first gave conflicting information via email by saying that the prosecutor is using paid time off, or PTO, but also that he is “on paid leave.” He later clarified that Kaneshiro is only on paid leave, not using PTO.
The prosecutor’s office did not respond to emailed questions.
While Kaneshiro was elected and can’t easily be removed, Leong is an appointed employee who can be fired for any reason. Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, said she should have been asked to resign by now.
“I find it really troubling,” he said. “Because you go into that job knowing full well people in those positions get dismissed all the time, I don’t think it’s fair to ask taxpayers to foot the bill.”
Last month, Enterprise Services Director Guy Kaulukukui joined the list of top city officials on paid leave after he was accused in a lawsuit of having an inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl at Kamehameha Schools in the 1980s.
Kaulukukui’s leave is not tied to an investigation, Zannes said, and the length of his leave “has not been determined.” The city has no policy or guidelines on what action to take when an employee is named in a civil complaint, according to Zannes.
The main reason to put an employee on paid administrative leave is to investigate potential misconduct, Moore said. Absent that, he said there is little justification for their continued employment.
“If the mayor isn’t comfortable enough saying ‘This person has my full faith and confidence and they’ll continue to do this job,’ they should resign,” he said. “I don’t see why taxpayers should cover salaries if the mayor isn’t willing to do that.”
Altogether, the annual salaries of the seven employees on paid leave because of an investigation or complaint total at least $820,000.
There are three additional Honolulu employees on paid administrative leave because of investigations into alleged wrongdoing, according to a list the mayor’s office provided in response to a Civil Beat request.
Two of them – employees in the Department of Planning and Permitting – have been on leave with pay for nearly two years. Those employees are each subject to a “pending investigation” into an unspecified “confidential personnel matter.” Moore said that length of time seems excessive.
“It’s an expensive and troubling practice if you’re putting someone on administrative leave for that long,” Moore said.
The city did not say who is investigating those cases. Anderson said if these are city investigations, that’s “unacceptable.”
A third employee, someone working in Environmental Services, was put on paid administrative leave on May 1, also in reference to a “confidential personnel matter.”
The mayor’s office declined to name those employees or detail the nature of the investigations to protect the workers’ privacy. It would not be appropriate to “disclose the names of individuals involved in pending personnel matters for which they have not yet been disciplined, or may never be subject to discipline,” Zannes said.
If they are civil service employees, the city can’t just fire them because of an accusation of misconduct, Moore said. That would open the city up to a possible wrongful termination lawsuit.
Still, investigations shouldn’t be indefinite, said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonprofit that advocates for government accountability. The city should consider putting some time limits on paid administrative leave, she said — perhaps six months with extensions when necessary.
The city could also allow people under investigation to work in other areas of government, Ma said, especially since the COVID-19 epidemic requires all hands on deck.
“The Honolulu bureaucracy is large and sprawling,” Ma said. “The city should attempt to find another place to put them. They are being paid by tax dollars.”
Anderson isn’t on board with that idea. Coworkers might be uncomfortable working around Kaulukukui, Anderson said, and the air of suspicion surrounding those targeted by the FBI would be a challenge.
“I don’t know if the public would be comfortable having a city official with a target letter from the FBI come back to work for the city,” he said.
Civil Beat submitted multiple requests to interview Human Resources Director Carolee Kubo about employees on paid leave. Zannes first said Kubo “isn’t available for one-on-one interviews at this time.”
When Civil Beat offered to work around Kubo’s schedule, Zannes said the city would only accept questions in writing.
Asked why Leong is now using vacation days, Zannes did not provide an explanation for Leong’s transition to unpaid leave or say when the Corporation Counsel’s PTO will run out.
“It is hoped that Ms. Leong will be cleared by the Department of Justice and will then be able to return to work,” Zannes said.
Lynn Panagakos, Leong’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.
The court system has been closed amid the coronavirus pandemic and is scheduled to reopen in mid-June. What this means for the grand jury that was convened for the federal investigation is unclear, said Alexander Silvert, a federal public defender who was involved in the Kealoha case.
“Sometimes when there is a delay and a halt like this, the impetus or momentum to move forward kind of dies,” he said.
Kaneshiro will be on paid leave until the grand jury reaches a conclusion, according to his attorney William McCorriston.
He said his client is entitled to a presumption of innocence and would like to be working. However, McCorriston said that Attorney General Clare Connors thought it best that Kaneshiro stay away since Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard expressed concern about working with him.
Kaneshiro’s term ends later this year and he is not running for reelection.
Sapolu received notice from the FBI that he was a subject of investigation, not a target, his attorney Randall Hironaka said.
A “subject” is someone whose conduct is within the scope of a grand jury’s investigation, according to the Department of Justice. A “target” is someone for which there is substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime.
The deputy prosecutor didn’t feel he had done anything wrong but voluntarily left the department to prevent his cases from being attacked by defense attorneys, Hironaka said. At first, he used his own vacation time but was later told he could use paid leave.
“There should be public trust in that office,” Hironaka said. “As long as there’s a little bit of a cloud hanging over his head, he felt it was the right thing to not work there on cases.”
According to Hironaka, Sapolu is eager to get back to work when the feds conclude their investigation.
The idea of paying government employees not to work is a concept that has frustrated taxpayers nationwide.
Over a three-year period, Boston taxpayers shelled out about $5 million to employees who were either facing criminal charges or under internal investigation, according to a 2018 report by an NBC affiliate in Massachusetts. One worker was paid to stay at home for 26 months and made more than $215,000 in that period.
Lawmakers in Minnesota called for reforms last year after a local news station, KARE11, reported that taxpayers were paying millions to cover paid leave for employees under investigation for misconduct and crimes. Their list of people taking a salary while not working included a corrections officer who spent more than two years on paid leave after being caught on video beating a prisoner.
In 2016, Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to cap paid administrative leave for federal employees at 10 days. The law allows for extensions for more than 30 days, but agencies need authorization from higher-ups and the cases need to be reported to Congress, The Washington Post reported. The move came after a Government Accountability Office report found that between 2011 and 2013, 263 employees took between one and three years of paid administrative leave totaling an estimated $31 million.
Implementation of that law hit a snag, however, and had not gone into effect as of last year.
In Honolulu, opinions differ on how to handle employees under investigation for misconduct.
If people have been investigated and cleared, Ma said they should be able to return to city employment.
“People deserve second chances,” she said.
Sapolu’s attorney echoed that sentiment and said his client should be allowed to resume work at the prosecutor’s office when the time is right.
“It’s not just a presumption (of innocence). It’s our belief, obviously, that he hasn’t done anything wrong,” Hironaka said. “Asking someone to basically put aside their career when they’re actually trying to help and restore public trust and faith in that office, it would seem to send the wrong message.”
But for Moore, a leader’s authority derives from their reputation. If that’s damaged, he said there isn’t much of a path forward for an elected or appointed official.
“When they’re accused of something that is serious enough to be put on paid leave, I think the appropriate thing is for them to simply resign,” he said. “For the most part, it would be almost impossible for them to ever regain the public trust.”
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