A state investigation last year found that state Sen. Glenn Wakai repeatedly harassed and bullied workers of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The findings were turned over to the state Senate in April 2019 as a formal complaint against Wakai in accordance with the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy. Senate leadership will not say what, if any, action has been taken.

The situation is creating tension between some state senators and the Ige administration, and is interfering with the state’s ability to present a unified response to the economic collapse from COVID-19.

Last month Mike McCartney, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, refused to answer questions about the administration’s recovery plan during a Senate committee hearing, jointly chaired by Wakai, saying he would not give senators the opportunity to bully his staff. He flourished a copy of the Senate’s anti-harassment policy as he spoke.

WAM committee Hearing Senator Glenn Wakai.
A state report found that State Sen. Glenn Wakai bullied and harassed Hawaii Tourism Authority staff. Wakai denies those allegations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Problems between state officials and Wakai appear to flow from a soured relationship between Wakai’s wife, Miki Wakai, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority — which is attached to DBEDT. Miki worked for HTA for several years but was forced to resign in 2016, according to the investigative report.

That’s when Wakai began sending hundreds of emails to HTA demanding information about its policies and practices, including how it handled sports marketing. The emails came not long after the HTA lost the contract for the 2017 NFL Pro Bowl, a major embarrassment for the state.

The HTA commissioned the investigation and the law firm hired for the job, ES&A Inc., produced a 25-page report in April 2019. It was turned over to the Senate soon after.

Wakai “has engaged in harassing and intimidating behavior towards HTA staff that has disrupted work and the agency, and may have contributed toward mental stress,” the report concluded.

The harassment is defined as “bullying” and refers generally to conduct that is threatening, humiliating and intimidating, interferes with work and is verbally abusive.

While there are no federal or Hawaii laws which currently prohibit bullying in the workplace, the report notes that many employers have adopted such policies. But state employment policy does prohibit “harassment, intimidation, threats of violence, and other disruptive behavior.”

Applying that policy, the report states, “it is clear that Wakai has engaged in repeated, abusive behavior that interrupted and interfered with the work of HTA staff.”

A copy of the confidential report was obtained by Civil Beat.

Asked for a response to the allegations, Wakai said, “My comments are that I was doing what a good public servant would do in holding people accountable. If they could not answer the questions, I didn’t let them off the hook.”

Wakai said he felt it was important to obtain and share relevant information from HTA with his colleagues at the Capitol, but he denied behaving inappropriately.

“It is clear that Wakai has engaged in repeated, abusive behavior that interrupted and interfered with the work of HTA staff.” — HTA investigative report

“I have never intimidated anyone, so I am unsure how that came up,” he said of the complaints. “If the allegation is that I am tenacious and they consider that harassment, then yes, I am very tenacious. But I did not intimidate anyone at HTA.”

Wakai said he was not aware of the HTA complaints. But he did submit to a seven-hour interview in March with a private investigator that has been retained by the Senate. Wakai said he did not know the status of that investigation.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the law firm Watanabe Ing was hired by the Senate to conduct its investigation. A spokesman for the law firm said it is not involved.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said in an emailed statement, “I cannot comment on any personnel matters. The Senate’s Anti-Harassment policy is strictly followed, and the Senate investigates every potential violation of its policy.”

The Senate revised its anti-harassment policy in January in response to the #MeToo movement. The policy reads in part:

It shall be the duty of every member and employee of the Senate to: (1) Treat one another and any individual conducting business with the Senate with dignity and respect; (2) Avoid any comments or conduct in the workplace that reasonably could be construed as violating this policy; (3) Affirmatively discourage comments or conduct by others that potentially violate this policy; (4) Report potential violations of this policy promptly; and (5) Refrain from and prevent reprisals or retaliation against any member, employee, or individual conducting business with the Senate who makes a good faith report of discrimination, harassment or a potential violation of this policy or who participates in an investigation of such a report.

Disrupting State Business?

The tension between Wakai and DBEDT fueled a puzzling public airing of grievances during a session of the Senate Ways and Means and Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology committees last month when McCartney refused to discuss the state’s economic recovery plan with the committees. Wakai chairs the economic development committee.

Unemployment is currently at 22%, a 14-day quarantine for all arrivals has contributed to a collapse of tourism and the Legislature faces a $2.3 billion budget shortfall because of a dramatic decline in tax revenues. The Legislature gutted Gov. David Ige’s proposed budget for a separate “economic navigator” and legislative budget writers said DBEDT should be leading the recovery effort.

McCartney, who previously served as chief of staff to Ige, was not cooperative at the joint committee hearing.

“It’s my duty as a director to protect my employees,” he told senators.

DBEDT Director Mike McCartney, center, refused to answer senators’ questions about the state’s economic recovery plan at a recent hearing, citing concerns over bullying. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Wakai pressed McCartney to explain his concerns, but the DBEDT chief did not elaborate except to say that Kouchi should be brought in to resolve the dispute. Kouchi, Wakai and McCartney did not respond to Civil Beat interview requests at the time.

Earlier in the day, the Senate approved a special investigative committee that gives it the power to subpoena records and compel witnesses to testify. Senators have been at odds with Ige’s representatives for months, often complaining that state officials are not showing up to committee hearings when asked and are hiding information.

McCartney declined to comment for this story.

Asked whether the broken relationship between the Senate and DBEDT might hamper the state’s ability to craft an economic recovery plan, Wakai said it did not.

“I think we should all be grown men and have a discussion about what’s important, which is the future economic revival of this state,” he said.

Hundreds Of Emails

The HTA investigation is based on interviews with three employees and three binders containing hundreds of emails by and between Wakai, his wife Miki and the HTA staff.

Miki Wakai was employed by HTA from 2013 to 2016, when she was allowed to resign in lieu of termination, the report says.

Miki Wakai was hired by HTA as a brand manager. In May 2016, she was assigned to work on Southeast Asia and Korea projects by HTA’s chief operating officer, Randy Baldemor, something that Miki Wakai expressed concerns about to her husband, according to the report.

In June, the Wakais emailed each other about the agency’s loss of the 2017 NFL Pro Bowl. The loss, announced in May, was described locally as “a black eye to the state’s sports tourism sector.”

In late July, Glenn Wakai began asking Baldemor for details about the HTA’s Sports Marketing RFP. Later that same month, Miki Wakai resigned — according to one of the interviews, “in lieu of termination.”

“If ‘difficult’ means that I make sure that you are competent in your job, sure, that was me.” — Sen. Glenn Wakai

Civil Beat tried to speak to Miki Wakai directly for this story via a message relayed through Glenn Wakai. She did not respond.

Over the next year and a half, according to a timeline chronicled in the report, Wakai repeatedly made requests of HTA staff on a variety of matters, especially regarding the budget and expenditures. Some 232 emails are included in the ES&A investigative report.

By that time, Wakai had become chair of the Senate’s Economic Development, Tourism and Technology Committee.

By April 2018, the Senate moved to cut the HTA’s budget by 44%.

“This bill injects accountability into an agency that denies any shortcomings and continues to shirk its responsibility to the public,” Wakai said in a statement at the time.

By the end of June, Baldemor and Leslie Dance, HTA’s vice president of marketing and product development, had left the agency. The HTA Board then voted to terminate the contract of HTA President and CEO George Szigeti.

“Despite difficulties faced by the remaining HTA staff (i.e., no executive leaders, two hurricanes, and a hotel workers strike), Sen. Wakai continued to question HTA on its budget, expenditures and activities, and to make sarcastic and/or critical remarks when he did not get what he wanted, when he wanted it,” the report says.

According to three witnesses, Wakai talked openly about firing HTA employees, complained about not receiving requested information that in fact had already been previously provided to him, used an intimidating tone in his communications, micromanaged and harassed staff and contractors, appeared to threaten retaliation, and was unprofessional and inappropriate to a female employee.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority, which promotes the visitor industry, has been the subject of close scrutiny by Sen. Glenn Wakai. Several of its top leaders have left in recent years. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Wakai also strongly opposed McCartney’s April 2019 confirmation as DBEDT director.

“It’s evident that Mr. McCartney chooses not to interact with the Senate. He really has no clear game plan as to what the business opportunities are for the state of Hawaii,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported at the time.

Witnesses say the behavior of Wakai was “widely known” across HTA offices, and that the agency’s relationship with the senator “was difficult.”

Wakai says he was just carrying out his responsibility to ensure the agency was operating efficiently and effectively.

“If ‘difficult’ means that I make sure that you are competent in your job, sure, that was me,” Wakai told Civil Beat earlier this week.

The senator said someone needed to “clean up that entire shop,” and that he believes he has made HTA a better organization. He pointed to a February 2018 report from the State Auditor that, among other things, said the agency demonstrated lax oversight of major contractors, and was deficient in procurement and contracting practices.

Still, the investigation concludes there is evidence that suggests that Glenn Wakai may have engaged in “intimidation and threats towards specific HTA staff by subjecting them to behavior intended to frighten, coerce, induce duress and/or inflict mental harm.”

It also faults HTA executive leaders for being aware of Wakai’s behavior but failing to “effectively address the situation.”

The HTA is administratively attached to DBEDT. The HTA investigation concluded that under state policy the two agencies are “required to take action to stop the wrongful behavior.”

Chris Tatum, who became HTA CEO and president in December 2018, declined to comment to Civil Beat on the investigative report.

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