It’s a typical news story.

Former Maui Police Department Officer Brandon Saffeels was sentenced to 10 years in prison earlier this month after pleading guilty to a federal charge of attempting to have sexual contact with a someone he thought was a 13-year-old girl. Meanwhile, Saffeels and his employer, Maui County, face a separate federal civil lawsuit from three women who say Saffeels used his power as an officer to try to coerce them into having sex with him.

Maui County locator map

But, in an unusual twist that raises questions about a journalist’s fundamental right to report the news without government interference, the County of Maui is seeking to subpoena testimony and records from a reporter who has covered the Saffeels case including the civil case.

Maui Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey and Deputy Corporation Counsels Keola Whittaker and Richelle Kawasaki have demanded Hawaii News Now’s chief investigative reporter Lynn Kawano appear for a deposition and turn over a variety of records related to the case.

Attorney Michael Green, Milton Choy's attorney speaks to media outside US District Court.
Maui County attorneys suspect Honolulu attorney Michael Green, who is suing the county on behalf of several women, may have some sort of inappropriate agreement with Hawaii News Now reporter Lynn Kawano. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The crux of the county’s argument, laid out in a Nov. 1 letter filed among court documents, is that Kawano crossed a line from being a reporter to “functioning as an advisor to plaintiffs.” Among other items being sought to show this: a purported “referral agreement” between Kawano and Honolulu trial lawyer Michael Green, who is representing the women in the case against the county and its disgraced former officer.

In the Nov. 1 letter Maui County states Kawano referred the three plaintiffs – Ronda Smythe, Liana Kanno and Alisha Constantino – to Green, then worked with Green to report the stories.

“It is clear that Ms. Kawano has not confined herself to news gathering, but has become an advisor to the plaintiffs,” the letter alleges. “In particular, Ms. Kawano appears to have advised plaintiffs that they may have legal claims, that they should hire a specific attorney with whom Ms. Kawano has a long-standing relationship (Mr. Green) and waited until Ms. Constantino hired Mr. Green before publishing her story on the news so that she could work with Mr. Green in forming the story.”

Hawaii News Now chief investigative reporter Lynn Kawano’s attorneys say Maui County is engaging in a fishing expedition for evidence that has nothing to do with a lawsuit against the county. Hawaii News Now

Green, who frequently represents parties in high-profile criminal and civil cases, dismissed the idea that he had any referral agreement or special relationship with Kawano, or any other journalist. He said he talks to reporters frequently because of the nature of his work and portrayed the Maui County lawyers as inept.

“The idiocy of what they’re doing is just incredible,” Green said. “It’s kind of scary they’re running a county over there.”

Bruce Voss, a Honolulu attorney who represents Kawano and her employers — television stations KGMB and KHNL — declined to comment. Instead, Voss pointed to a lengthy motion to quash the subpoena.

“Fundamentally,” the document says, “this Motion seeks a protective order because the County of Maui cannot subpoena a journalist out of mere convenience or as part of a fishing expedition on areas that have nothing to do with the subject matter of this case.”

Arguing that a reporter’s news gathering activities are generally protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the motion states, “In sum, Ms. Kawano, as a journalist, is not a discovery depot for the County of Maui.”

The motion also questions how a referral agreement or communications between Kawano and Green, if they existed, would be relevant to proving whether an admitted child sex predator also targeted adult women.

“HNN can only surmise that the County of Maui is attempting to establish some nefarious plot (that does not exist) for the purpose of distracting from some very bad facts in this case,” the motion says.

The motion adds that the evidence sought from Kawano “is not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence in this case and is apparently for the purpose of attacking Plaintiffs’ counsel – Mr. Green.”

Although Hawaii previously had a shield law to protect journalists from being forced to disclose things like confidential sources, the 2008 law expired in 2013 due to a sunset provision. An attempt to restore the law in 2015 stalled in the House. One point of contention has been whether non-traditional reporters such as independent bloggers should be protected.

The motion to quash relies primarily on the U.S. Constitution and federal rules of civil procedure to justify protecting Kawano from being hauled into a deposition and producing documents.

U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi set a hearing on the motion for Jan. 5.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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