When Jan Yamane was hired by the Honolulu Ethics Commission in 2016, she was leaving the state auditor’s office where employees accused her of operating a hostile work environment that was plagued by favoritism, low morale and harassment. 

But none of that was public information at the time. The existence of an investigation was in the news and there were rumors about its focus, but the Attorney General’s Office fought for years to keep the details secret. It only became public this week after a years-long legal fight by Civil Beat.

Now Yamane has spent six years heading the city’s watchdog agency which, among other things, handles complaints about misconduct that may be similar in nature to what Yamane was accused of doing. 

City Ethics Commission Executive Director and Legal Counsel Jan Yamane. 9 aug 2016
Jan Yamane is the executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“It certainly bears questioning her judgment,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of the government accountability group Common Cause Hawaii. “But if she has learned from that investigation and has grown, then, of course, people can change and improve.” 

The report paints an unflattering picture of Yamane’s leadership as acting state auditor, along with two other top managers. It says Yamane created an “offensive working environment,” behaved unprofessionally and made harassing and discriminatory comments to employees.

There were also concerns that Yamane was sensationalizing audit findings at a time when she was hoping lawmakers would confirm her to the post permanently. Yamane has denied doing this.

One employee noted that “the office under Yamane is going downhill badly and quickly,” according to the report, and some senior staff left their jobs.

Ethics Commission member Vicky Marks said the commission is thrilled with Yamane’s performance and doesn’t much care about allegations from years ago. She hasn’t read the report and doesn’t plan to. 

“I don’t think it has any bearing on the job she is currently doing,” said Marks, a retired judge. “And I’m not going to sit down and read a 500+ page report. I’ve got better things to do.”

City Ethics chair Victoria Marks. 9 aug 2016
Victoria Marks, a retired state court judge, has been a member of the Honolulu Ethics Commission since before Jan Yamane was hired. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Fellow commissioner Peter Adler said he would read the report, but he is “loath to pass a lot of judgment.” 

He commended Yamane on her work with the commission on a strategic plan, ethics investigations and new policies on city employees receiving gifts. 

“She’s done a fantastic job with the ethics commission,” he said. “I for one would not judge her on the basis on what’s done in the past. She’s been great.” 

Ethics commissioners hired Yamane on the basis of her resume, interview and references, all of which were overwhelmingly positive, according to Marks, who was involved in Yamane’s hiring. 

Whether the commission would have hired Yamane if the Attorney General’s report had been public back then, Marks said she doesn’t know. 

“Who the hell knows what if, what if, what if?” she asked. “But based on her interviews, the interviews we did with other applicants, and everything else, she was the best person for the job.”

Asked if the commission has received any complaints about Yamane in her current role, Marks first said yes. Then she said not really. Then she said no. 

Urged to clarify, she acknowledged the office has experienced some turnover – perhaps two or three people in the last year or two, which isn’t insignificant when the staff has only 11 people. In light of that, Marks said it might be worth doing a 360 evaluation of Yamane, in which her staff contributes to her job review in addition to the commissioners. 

Yamane herself said she still hasn’t seen the report and rejected a reporter’s offer to send it to her. She declined to comment on how the findings reflect on her today. 

She said she’s looking forward, not back. Her office has been able to hire people for long-vacant positions and make progress on a backlog of cases, among other accomplishments, she said. 

“We’re moving ahead,” she said. 

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s office said he hasn’t been able to read the report because he was traveling.

“Nevertheless, based on the Mayor and Managing Director’s work with Jan Yamane and the Ethics Commissions since January 2021, they have no concerns with her performance and/or ability to head the Ethics Commission,” his office said in a statement.

“They have received no complaints regarding her performance to date and stand behind her service.”

Read the full report here, on the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest’s website.

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