When Shaylene Iseri was Kauai County’s top prosecutor almost a decade ago, a half-dozen civil lawsuits named her as a defendant.
The disputes, however, did not play out in a courtroom.
Instead, allegations that Iseri had harassed and retaliated against employees and created a hostile work environment at the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney were resolved with five and six-figure settlements funded by taxpayers.
The largest settlement — a quarter-million dollars — went to then-County Councilman Tim Bynum, who claimed he was the victim of wrongful prosecution.
The settlements relieved Iseri of liability for any wrongdoing. But the sheer volume of the accusations against her, amplified by newspaper headlines and a small-town rumor mill, created a perception that the OPA was a toxic workplace during Iseri’s one-term administration.
In 2013, a website named Iseri one of the nation’s worst bosses, calculating that legal complaints against her resulted in at least $228,000 in taxpayer-funded settlements in 2012 alone.
Voters ousted Iseri from the county prosecutor’s seat in 2012. Her opponent Justin Kollar went on to win three consecutive elections before resigning last month with three years left in his term.
Last week, Iseri filed nomination papers to campaign in a special election to finish out Kollar’s remaining term as county prosecutor, a move that has renewed interest in her tenure as prosecutor from 2008 to 2012 and the public controversies that embroiled the OPA under her leadership.
Iseri characterized the litigation against her as political stunts that, as they now resurface, are detracting voters from the issues. The county, she said, settled the suits without any input from her.
The upcoming election pits former foes against one another.
She sued Iseri in 2012 alleging that Iseri retaliated against her when she was deputy prosecutor because she failed to participate in Iseri’s reelection campaign. The county and Like settled the complaint for $25,000, according to The Garden Island.
But she described the office under Iseri’s leadership as being in “a perpetual state of chaos.”
“The office itself was really messy, there were filing cabinets lining all the hallways, papers stuffed here and there and there was so much deputy turnover that it was really hard to get a handle on day-to-day operations,” Like said.
Iseri said the spate of civil lawsuits she faced as county prosecutor years ago were politically motivated and had “no basis in truth.”
Iseri did not want to discuss the lawsuits in detail but said she was also on the receiving end of a settlement from the county. She received a six-figure payment that she said was intended to stop her from suing the county after she accused the former county attorney at a county council meeting in 2013 of trading a lawsuit settlement for a receptionist job for his wife in the OPA after voters knocked her out of office.
“I don’t believe it’s cost-effective to spend time on things that happened nine years ago when we are dealing with the explosion of drugs killing our youth, repeat offenders being let out with minimal sanctions (and) dangerous criminals getting generous plea offers,” Iseri said.
Former Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry said Iseri got the “wrong end of the deal” in terms of the lawsuits she faced as prosecutor. The county, he said, did not support her and didn’t do its job to defend her.
“If they didn’t like you, (the county) would settle out and do all the things necessary to make you look really bad,” Perry said. “And they did make Shaylene look really bad.”
The estimated cost to the county to hold a special primary election on Dec. 18 and a special general election on Feb. 26 is $475,000.
On The Ballot: A Familiar Name And A Political Newcomer
Voters elected Iseri once as county prosecutor in 2008 and twice as a county council member in 2004 and 2006. She lost her campaign for a council seat in 2018.
Colleagues describe Iseri, who has been endorsed by The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, as a tenacious trial lawyer with a bold, no-nonsense persona.
But some say she’s a poor people manager. There are also people who doubt her ability to wield political power ethically and fear she might use it to settle scores.
For this story, Civil Beat interviewed more than a dozen people and researched Iseri’s record over the four years she served as county prosecutor. Some people would only speak without attribution because they said they feared retaliation.
Like, who has never held an elective office, would bring to the job less courtroom experience but also less political baggage.
Like is endorsed by Kollar, who described her as honest and intelligent, adding that it took him years to rebuild public trust in the OPA after Iseri stepped down as prosecutor.
Like “has never shown up unprepared for anything in the entire time I’ve known her,” Kollar said. “She’s an excellent courtroom litigator, as well as somebody who’s been a manager for the past nine years. She has integrity, and she’s experienced.”
The winning candidate would step into office at a time when the island is dealing with a rise in Fentanyl abuse, a suicide problem and a longstanding lack of mental health and drug addiction resources, all of which should have been helped by the county’s new $7 million inpatient youth treatment center. But the facility never opened to drug-dependent youth and when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the county chose to repurpose the vacant building as an isolation center for people infected with the coronavirus.
At the intersection of public health and public safety are diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, such as mental health court and medically assisted treatment, that Like said she’d like to build up while focusing the OPA’s prosecutorial resources on violent and repeat offenders.
As acting prosecutor, Like, who lives in Anahola, said she’s working on a grant program that would provide cell phones to people when they are released from the jail as a tool to gain employment and communicate with their attorneys.
For nonviolent offenders, Iseri said she supports diversion programs, including drug and mental health treatment, in lieu of incarceration — but not for everyone.
“It’s not a right,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘Send everybody to rehabilitation,’ because it won’t work that way. It’s a privilege and you’ve got to want treatment.”
Like said her proven managerial skills set her apart from her opponent. As a boss, she said she’s predictable and consistent, qualities she said Iseri appears to lack.
“I’m also not politically aligned with a lot of people, like council members, so I don’t have that following me into office,” she said.
As prosecutor, Iseri said she would remain a fixture in the courtroom, trying high-profile cases while also training deputy prosecutors and building rapport with the public, the police department, the jail system and other agencies.
“That’s what they elect you for,” said Iseri, who lives in Lihue. “They don’t elect you to be an HR person in an office.”
Iseri pointed out what she called misjudgments in how the OPA in recent years has charged cases.
“There are just irrational policies like dismissing driver’s license cases,” she said. “I represented a guy who had 12 (charges for) driving without a license … and they dismissed it all. Why are you letting repeat offenders continue to violate the law? When you dismiss all you do is empower them.”
Perry, who worked with both candidates when he was Kauai police chief, described Like as a calm, effective negotiator.
He said Iseri is a strong advocate for victim’s rights. She was instrumental in bringing charges against the estranged husband of Sandra Galas, who was found strangled to death in her Eleele garage in 2006, he said.
For years the high-profile murder case languished due to lack of evidence. But when Iseri became prosecutor, she partnered with police to bring charges against Galas’ estranged husband in 2012.
In 2018, Darren Galas was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge.
“She did a lot in terms of that case,” Perry said. “She was a real go-getter.”
But Iseri’s no-nonsense personality, he said, was not always well-received and sometimes caused her problems.
“I know she always wanted to do what was right,” Perry said. “If she saw something was wrong or illegal, she would be like a bulldog and she would go after that person — that was her job. Maybe the way she did it could have come across as power-drunk.
“Kauai is a different place. If you don’t come across as being hoomalimali — being very cooperative, being very social, playing ball with everybody — if you don’t do that, people interpret your decision-making and all the rest as being very aggressive. That’s not local style.”
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