The fight over the temporary restraining order is the latest controversy involving the commission, which has been accused of corruption and discrimination.

Controversies surrounding the beleaguered Honolulu Liquor Commission have taken an unusual turn, with a commission investigations supervisor obtaining a temporary restraining order against a critic who the supervisor says has bombarded the agency with public records requests. The critic’s lawyer says her client is simply seeking public information that makes the commission look bad.

A trial on whether to make the TRO against Robert Sobieralski permanent is scheduled for later this month.

The case is occurring on the sidelines of a high-profile federal civil rights suit pitting an LGBTQ+ newsletter and Scarlet Honolulu, a gay bar owned by Sobieralski’s roommate, against the commission and several of its investigators.

Honolulu City and County Liquor Commission seal.
The Honolulu Liquor Commission has suffered a raft of departures amid complaints of unfair treatment by licensees and calls for reform by some City Council members. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Sobieralski, a former business consultant in Chicago, has used information gleaned from the public records requests to compile a 41-page PowerPoint presentation that’s critical of the Liquor Commission and its investigators.

TRO Granted

Catherine Fontaine, a commission investigations supervisor, filed for the TRO after taking issue with the mentions of her in the report and the process by which Sobieralski obtained the information.

“He has quite literally, inundated my office with requests for public information nearly every single week for months,” Fontaine wrote in her petition for the TRO. “Mr. Sobieralski is not a licensee, nor is he a registered employee at any liquor establishment within Honolulu. He has filed multiple false complaints about me and my co-workers, all of which have been easily and quickly closed as unfounded and false.”

In an interview, Fontaine said the issue isn’t merely that Sobieralski has asked for records.

“He’s basically been looking up whatever he can about me and sending it to whoever he can,” she said, adding that includes the Liquor Commission and Honolulu City Council.

Fontane wants Sobieralski to stay away from her office and not contact her.

But Sobieralski’s lawyer, Megan Kau, said the real issue is that her client has used public information to put the commission in a bad light.

“It’s not about harassment,” she said. “It’s about access to public records that everyone is entitled to — following proper procedures, which he did.”

The fight over the TRO is the latest controversy involving the commission, which licenses establishments that manufacture, import or sell liquor on Oahu, Hawaii’s most populous island.

The commission’s recent woes include a raft of departures amid complaints from licensees alleging unfair treatment by investigators. In 2022, the agency’s long-time top administrator, Franklin “Don” Pacarro, board chair Narsi Ganaban and vice chair Darren Lee all quit. Then, in January, Ganaban’s replacement as board chair, Malama Minn, also quit.

Calling For Reforms

The federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in November 2021 by Scarlet Honolulu owned by Robbie Baldwin — Sobieralski’s roommate — and Walter Enriquez doing business as Gay Island Guide.

It named as defendants the commission and several employees. The plaintiffs allege Fontaine and her colleagues used “their powers to unevenly inspect, and by targeting, intimidating, harassing, physically assaulting, and shutting down or threatening to shut down Plaintiffs’ businesses solely because they are LGBTQ+ businesses and establishments.”

The plaintiffs have offered to drop the suit if the city agrees to impose reforms on the commission, including establishing an ombudsman or internal affairs office previously called for in a resolution by City Council Chair Tommy Waters and Vice Chair Esther Kiaaina.

A spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi declined to comment about the settlement proposal or Fontaine’s TRO.

“Regarding the Scarlett Honolulu lawsuit, the City does not comment on ongoing litigation,” the mayor’s deputy communications director, Ian Scheuring, said in a statement. “Regarding the Petition for Ex Parte TRO, the City does not have any comment on a case in which the investigator sought a TRO on her own and was granted it by the court.”

But the mayor has taken steps to address problems at the commission. For example, last month, Krishna Jayaram, a deputy managing director for the mayor, told the commission’s board that the city would hire a law firm to investigate recent complaints against the commission.

Blangiardi’s managing director, Mike Formby, also announced Hui Chen, a strategic adviser to the managing director who previously has worked as a compliance expert at the U.S. Department of Justice, would review the agency’s management systems.

Scarlet Honolulu owner Robbie Baldwin.
Scarlet Honolulu owner Robbie Baldwin has offered to drop a federal civil rights suit against the Honolulu Liquor Commission if the commission will agree to implement reforms. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

That’s what Sobieralski says he already has started doing by creating the PowerPoint presentation that’s at the center of Fontaine’s TRO request. The document includes critiques of Fontaine and other investigators, along with data about the agency gathered from records requests. An overarching theme is that the agency became increasingly aggressive under the supervision of chief investigator Peter Nakagawa and Fontaine, who became a night investigations supervisor in 2018, according to the report.

Sobieralski said he approached the report as he would a management review and acknowledged he pulled no punches concerning Fontaine’s performance. He said he sent a copy of the report to the mayor’s office.

“She was enabling some pretty aggressive behavior, and that’s called out,” he said in an interview.

Fontaine’s petition also asserts that Sobieralski posted personal information about her and where she resides on a Facebook group he administers called “Reform the Honolulu Liquor Commission.” A recent review of the site, however, showed no such posts.

Fontaine, who is representing herself in the TRO proceeding, said she didn’t want to share all of the information she has gathered against Sobieralski until the trial. She also didn’t talk about the federal lawsuit.

In the meantime, Sobieralski is preparing to fight the TRO. Jeff Portnoy, a Honolulu media lawyer, said it was unusual for a public official to persuade a judge to grant a TRO against someone for merely filing public records requests and writing reports.

“Some judge entered a TRO? What? You’ve go to be kidding,” he said.

If Sobieralski has published libelous reports about Fontaine, Portnoy said, the recourse would be to file a libel suit, not to seek an order preventing Sobieralski from contacting her.

But Fontaine said she needed to focus on the federal civil rights suit for now.  

“I just want him to stay away from me,” she said.

Sobieralski’s lawyer, Kau, said the TRO would have a chilling effect on her client’s ability to get information about the commission. The Liquor Commission’s standard procedure for Sobieralski to obtain public records, she said, has been for him to go in person to pick up the documents and pay for them. The supervisor’s TRO prevents Sobieralski from doing that, she said.

“He can’t go down there now that he’s been served with a TRO,” she said. “He’ll be arrested.”

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