The Hawaii Labor Relations Board this week will consider a case involving a public elementary school principal and vice principal who were fired in 2018 after they were accused of having sexual relations on campus during an extramarital affair.
Erin Kusumoto, the former vice principal of Pearl City Highlands Elementary School, filed a prohibited practice complaint against the Hawaii Government Employees Association last year after the union refused to take her case to arbitration to fight her firing.
She is also separately challenging the actions of state Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto in the firing because Kusumoto contends she was terminated without proper cause, and was punished too severely.
Kishimoto wrote in Kusumoto’s termination letter that a 2018 investigation found that “there is sufficient evidence to conclude that VP Kusumoto inappropriately engaged in conduct of a sexual nature and/or sexual relations with Principal Nakasato on the PCHES campus before, during and after work hours.”
The termination letter also concluded Kusumoto inappropriately used state facilities and work time for personal reasons when she “engaged in inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature and/or sexual relations” with Principal Michael Nakasato during DOE work time. Nakasato was also terminated.
The letter alleged Kusumoto also violated DOE’s Code of Conduct by lying about the affair when DOE officials initially asked her about it. She later admitted to the relationship, according to the complaint filed with the HLRB on Kusumoto’s behalf.
The allegations came to the attention of DOE officials after Nakasato’s wife confronted Kusumoto about it at the school in the fall of 2017, and then widely distributed an email months later on the state system that included “graphic accusations” the couple had sex on campus during school hours, according to the labor board complaint.
Kusumoto’s lawyer, her father Miles Miyamoto, argued in filings before the HLRB that the investigation never produced any evidence the couple had sex on campus during school hours, which was the most “egregious” charge in the case.
The filing also alleges the email from Nakasato’s wife accusing Kusumoto and Nakasato of misconduct was a “vicious personal attack” and an improper use of the state email system.
The email circulated to at least 1,000 people, and the DOE administration failed to remove it from the system even after Kusumoto complained about it, according to the HLRB filing. The complaint alleges the email was left in the system because the administration “intended to intimidate (Kusumoto) to not challenge the DOE in any way.”
Kusumoto’s complaint also alleges the investigation was flawed in a variety of other ways, and amounted to an invasion of her privacy.
The filing contends the affair itself did not cause any on-campus disruption, and cites interviews with long-time employees at the school who said they did not notice any change in the relationship between the school administrators after it began.
“They admitted to having sex on campus, but what they admitted to was after hours,” Miyamoto said in an interview Wednesday.
“Miss Kusumoto’s position has always been that she accepted that she should be held accountable for her conduct, but her feeling has been that termination was too excessive of a penalty,” said Miyamoto. Instead, the department could have suspended or demoted her, he said.
According to the complaint, Kusumoto notified HGEA she was prepared to bear the full cost of fighting her firing at arbitration. Miyamoto told the union he was willing to represent her at no cost to the HGEA.
The union initially filed a grievance over DOE’s handling of the case, but then notified Kusumoto in late 2019 it would not contest the firing at arbitration, according to the prohibited practices complaint. The complaint alleges that was a breach of the union’s duty to represent her in the case.
Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said the union did a thorough analysis of the facts before deciding how to proceed.
“In this particular case, based on the facts that we gathered on our own as well as the thoroughness of the investigation by the Department of Education, we made the determination that there was no merit to go to arbitration,” he said.
“We trust that through the course of this hearing, it will show that we didn’t act in an arbitrary manner, and we gave the issue due consideration but found that it did not merit arbitration as a violation of the contract — that the disciplinary action taken was justifiable,” Perreira said.
A spokeswoman for the DOE declined to comment on the case, saying the department does not discuss active or pending litigation.
The HLRB hearing on the claim against HGEA is scheduled to begin Friday morning.
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