A former official at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has sued the agency as well as its former chief executive officer alleging whistleblower retaliation and “corrupt and unlawful practices.”
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in First Circuit Court by David Laeha, former chief financial officer of OHA, details several instances in which Laeha was allegedly ordered to complete improper payments for contracts and was blocked when he tried to report instances of harassment of himself and others.
He was fired in 2019.
OHA, Kamana’opono Crabbe, the former CEO, and Miles Nishijima, a former land division director, are named as defendants in the suit.
OHA declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Update: Crabbe left the office in June 2019. In a written statement Tuesday afternoon, Crabbe said he is confident OHA’s legal team will be able to defend against Laeha’s allegations.
Crabbe said it’s his understanding that Laeha’s complaints were previously dismissed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and called the new lawsuit “another attempt to seek unwarranted financial gains.”
Laeha alleges in the lawsuit that he was ordered to pay excessive amounts of money to a consultant team hired by OHA and that he was ordered to pay another contractor for work already done by a separate contractor. He said he was accused of missing work deadlines and retaliated against for reporting instances of workplace harassment to an independent investigator.
The lawsuit alleges that OHA, Crabbe and Nishijima violated Hawaii’s Whistleblower Act, wrongfully terminated Laeha, breached his contract and inflicted emotional distress. Laeha wants back pay, reinstatement of fringe benefits and to be reimbursed for other costs.
None of the defendants had filed responses to Laeha’s lawsuit as of Wednesday.
Eric Seitz, Laeha’s attorney, said his client’s experience at OHA is in line with concerns in recent years over how the office awards contracts and manages its finances.
Laeha, along with Crabbe and other OHA executives were also in charge of the office’s LLCs, which have been the target of lawsuits, a now stalled audit and inquiries from the OHA Board of Trustees.
Laeha alleges that Spire, an accounting firm contracted by OHA to provide financial services, overestimated the office’s finances by about $40 million. Trustee Kelii Akina previously raised concerns that Spire’s work was duplicative of work already performed by office staff, the conservative news site Hawaii Free Press reported in 2017.
Laeha believed Spire’s work product did not justify payment but he was ordered to pay the bills anyway.
Laeha alleges in another instance that his concerns over a contract for $149,000 for work already performed by another contractor at a cost of $400,000 were dismissed. He suggested the office try to recoup those funds, but was again ignored, according to the lawsuit.
In 2018, Laeha reported instances of harassment by another staffer to an independent investigator hired by OHA, according to the lawsuit.
Laeha also alleged that he was “being targeted as a whistleblower” and was suspended in January 2019 just days before a scheduled appearance before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
He was terminated later that month.
Seitz, Laeha’s attorney, said he tried to avoid a lawsuit. He wrote OHA a letter in October and sent a draft of the complaint in January. OHA responded in both instances, essentially saying agency officials wouldn’t talk about the circumstances surrounding Laeha’s firing, according to Seitz.
“We weren’t anxious to sue them, but that’s the only way sometimes to get their attention,” Seitz said.
Read the complaint below
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell