WASHINGTON — A federal retaliation lawsuit that resulted in a $1.8 million settlement against Kauai County in 2020 is raising a barrage of new questions about whether Michael Contrades, who is President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. Marshal in Hawaii, is fit for the job.

Contrades worked for the Kauai Police Department from 1994 to 2019, rising to the rank of deputy chief.

In 2016, he and then-KPD Chief Darryl Perry were named as defendants in a lawsuit that accused them of carrying out a years-long campaign to discredit, undermine and harass Mark Begley, a fellow assistant chief who had filed a workplace discrimination complaint on behalf of a female officer.

Kauai Police Dept signage on police vehicle.
Michael Contrades was accused of taking retaliatory actions against a fellow assistant chief while working at the Kauai Police Department. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Documents obtained by Civil Beat, including internal emails, official correspondence from county attorneys and transcripts of sworn witness testimony, show that Contrades actively participated in efforts to fire Begley after Begley filed the complaint and to strip him of his authority even though he was on stress leave.

The records show Contrades launched a series of internal affairs investigations into Begley that have since been described by Begley’s attorneys as “frivolous” and “unfounded.”

Many of the allegations in the lawsuit appear to be supported by documents the White House could easily access, including the results of formal investigations by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that found Begley was indeed the victim of retaliation.

“You would think that they would have vetted this and it would have been the end,” said Alexander Silvert, a retired federal defender from Hawaii. “To pick an individual like Mr. Contrades who had this action and complaint against him seems to me to be extremely unusual. I cannot understand how he would be nominated at this point in time if anybody actually did any research into his background.”

The allegations against Contrades aren’t the only concern, Silvert said.

​​Should Contrades be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he would be forced to work alongside one of the lawyers who sued him on behalf of Begley — U.S. Attorney Clare Connors, also a Biden appointee, who represented Begley when she was in private practice.

Michael Contrades was a Kauai Police Department assistant chief. Hawaii News Now

Marshals provide judicial security, transport prisoners to and from court and lead investigations into fugitives accused of federal crimes. They are required to work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The job includes making arrests, participating in various task force operations with local, state and federal agencies, and taking part in high level briefings with U.S. officials, including prosecutors.

“If there’s an antagonistic relationship between the U.S. Marshal and the U.S. Attorney’s Office it’s extremely troubling because they are an integral arm of law enforcement in the federal system,” Silvert said.

Connors declined to comment on Contrades’ nomination.

Contrades declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an emailed statement, he said he was “honored and humbled” to be nominated and that he looked forward to the opportunity to serve as U.S. Marshal. In regards to the lawsuit, he pointed to a clause in the settlement that states that a settlement of the lawsuit does not equate to an admission of guilt.

A separate provision of the agreement stated that Contrades agreed not to seek further employment with KPD, even on an unpaid basis, so long as Begley was still employed there.

Concern Among Hawaii’s U.S. Senators

It’s unclear exactly how Contrades was selected as Biden’s top nominee.

On April 22, the White House released a statement saying that Contrades and other nominees for positions around the country “were chosen for their devotion to enforcing the law, their professionalism, their experience and credentials in this field, their dedication to pursuing equal justice for all, and their commitment to the independence of the Department of Justice.”

Since then the White House has refused to answer questions about how exactly Contrades was vetted and what role, if any, Begley’s lawsuit played in that process.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the nomination or the lawsuit.

“I would trust my wife and daughter’s life in his hands.” — Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami

Marshals often don’t receive the same level of scrutiny as federal judges and U.S. attorneys, whose nominations usually involve input from the U.S. senators representing the jurisdictions that they’re slated to serve. Still, the White House typically relies on those senators to provide it with a list of potential nominees.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said he didn’t know Contrades, but that he came highly recommended by Kauai’s mayor, Derek Kawakami, and others. Schatz said he was told that Contrades disclosed Begley’s lawsuit to the White House and that officials there felt that their vetting of it was sufficient.

“The White House was satisfied, which normally is good enough for me,” Schatz said. “But if there’s something more that I don’t know I would want to know it.”

Lawsuit aside, Contrades’ background fits what a president might look for in a U.S. Marshal. He spent 25 years at KPD, and served as acting chief for nearly two years in 2018 and 2019. After he retired, he went to work for Kawakami in the mayor’s office, where he still serves today as a capital improvement project manager.

He’s also served as the Kauai field representative for Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele, who earlier this month announced he’s running for governor.

Contrades is the son of Thomas Contrades, who before his death in 2018, was well connected and well liked on Kauai.

The elder Contrades worked as a business agent for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and served on a number of government boards and commissions, including the Hawaiian Homes Commission and state Land Use Commission. From 2010 to 2012, he was a special assistant to then Mayor Bernard Carvalho.

 

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono says she will no longer support Contrades’ nomination. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2018

In an interview with Civil Beat, Kawakami praised Contrades’ service for Kauai and said that he trusts him implicitly.

“I would trust my wife and daughter’s life in his hands,” he said.

Kawakami wasn’t familiar with the accusations in the lawsuit or the details that came to light during the EEOC’s investigation, but he said that he still believed Contrades to be a good candidate for U.S. Marshal based on his own experiences working with him. He also pointed out that many of the allegations are a decade old at this point.

“I judge a man’s character based on my first hand knowledge,” Kawakami said. “And I’ve not seen anything but a dependable, honest person that I have witnessed as being even keeled and fair.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, could be a barrier to Contrades’ confirmation.

In a statement, Hirono spokesperson Madeleine Russak said that although the office interviewed applicants interested in becoming U.S. Marshal before submitting names to the White House, the senator was unaware of the allegations contained in the lawsuit until Civil Beat reported about the lawsuit in a story about Contrades’ nomination.

As a result, Russak said, Hirono is “unable to support Mr. Contrades.”

‘His Failure To Follow Orders Was Egregious’

Begley’s lawsuit, which was filed in 2016, stems from actions he took in 2011 after he received a complaint from Officer Darla Abbatiello in which she accused an assistant chief of discriminating against her because he thought she was a troublemaker.

Abbatiello had previously filed a whistleblower lawsuit against KPD in which she claimed a fellow officer had accepted $6,000 from a suspected drug dealer in exchange for protection.

According to her lawsuit, the officer she had accused began harassing her and calling her vulgar names. When she asked for a transfer she was demoted.

Eventually, Abbatiello won a $980,000 settlement.

Mark Begley was an assistant chief who won a major lawsuit against the county. Hawaii News Now

That history is why Begley took Abbatiello’s 2011 complaint so seriously, said Loretta Sheehan, who was one of the attorneys who represented him in his lawsuit. He didn’t want the department to get in trouble again for not following protocol.

“He knew this was the type of case where you have to cross your t’s and dot your i’s,” Sheehan said.

Begley took Abbatiello’s complaint to Perry, but, according to the lawsuit, the chief tried to bury it because he worried it would cost the department “big bucks.”

After months of inaction, Begley put Abbattiello’s complaint in writing to memorialize it while she took her grievances straight to the mayor and police commission, sparking a series of events that would eventually result in a five-day suspension for Perry and a full blown investigation by an outside attorney.

Sheehan said Perry blamed Begley for his problems and that Contrades was a willing participant in retaliating against Begley, even writing in a March 15, 2012 email that because of the “pilikia,” or trouble, he caused it would be better for KPD if Begley was “not around.”

In general, Begley’s lawsuit and associated documents, including those obtained from the EEOC’s investigation, paint a picture of a dysfunctional police department fueled by spite and paranoia.

The records detail a coordinated campaign by Perry and Contrades to isolate Begley from his peers and an effort to get him fired or force him to quit even after he took medical leave to cope with the stress.

According to the documents, county attorneys warned Perry that his and Contrades’ actions were “highly inappropriate” and could expose them to even more liability, but those concerns, which were described as “grave,” were ignored.

In a 2018 deposition, Contrades admitted he wanted Begley off the job. He denied, however, that it was retaliation.

“I thought his failure to follow orders was egregious,” Contrades said. “I don’t think you can disregard the order of the chief of police and continue to be employed with the Kauai Police Department.”

According to documents and witness testimony, KPD officers were directed to conduct surveillance on Begley and snoop around the personal files contained on his work computer. Perry himself started sharing protected medical information he took from Begley’s personnel file on his work computer about a prior head injury and sending letters to state officials trying to get Begley’s worker’s compensation yanked for fraud.

“They wanted to punish him. They wanted to show him who’s in charge.” — Honolulu attorney Loretta Sheehan

The department launched 13 different internal affairs investigations into Begley, who previously had a clean record and been honored both as KPD’s “Top Cop” and “Officer of the Year.”

Contrades himself initiated several of the investigations, including one that stemmed from a situation in which Perry’s nephew by marriage had pulled over Begley for rolling through a stop sign. Begley was accused of “badging” the younger officer to get out of a ticket, but the investigation found that Perry’s nephew had simply let Begley go after noticing who he was from his driver’s license.

Contrades admitted in his deposition that no investigation was launched into the other officer for letting his superior go despite the fact that it was a violation of KPD’s standards of conduct.

Perry said his attorney advised him he could not comment on the lawsuit, but that he supported Contrades’ nomination.

“Mike is a really good guy and he’ll be great for the state of Hawaii,” Perry said. “He’s a hard worker and his heart is for the community.”

To Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor and former chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission, the legal record is clear and only goes to support her contention that the White House made a mistake when it picked Contrades for the job.

“They wanted to punish him,” Sheehan said. “They wanted to show him who’s in charge. That’s what this was.”

Read Begley’s lawsuit here:

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