The Sunshine Blog: Schools Chief Gets A Job Review, And The Latest On The Feds' Not-So-Secret Document - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Short takes, outtakes, observations and other stuff you should know about public information, government accountability and ethical leadership in Hawaii.

School daze: It’s no secret among Hawaii reporters that one of the worst agencies to deal with is the state Department of Education.

Teachers and school administrators are discouraged, sometimes forbidden, from talking to the press without getting permission from DOE higher-ups. DOE communications staff routinely drag their feet on requests for information or are reluctant to set up interviews.

The DOE lags behind many other school districts in the amount of data and public information that it posts online. Community groups have had to sue to get access to financial information that is public record.

Civil Beat successfully sued the DOE in 2019 to obtain records from teacher misconduct cases, but then the DOE took so long to hand over the records that our lawyer had to file a sanctions motion against the department — a year after a deadline set by a judge for the DOE to make more disclosures.

So we were surprised, to say the least, when we saw Superintendent Keith Hayashi’s self evaluation, part of an annual performance review that is set to go to the Board of Education on Thursday.

DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi is giving himself an “effective” rating for efforts to build positive relationships with the families and the public, an effort that he says includes better media outreach. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hayashi says he’s been working to “foster productive working relationships with reporters” by holding monthly meetings with education-focused reporters. He says he’s been making that effort since February. 

Huh? That’s news to us. No reporter who writes about education at Civil Beat has been invited to one of these meetings. In fact, we’ve never even heard of such a thing.

DOE Communications Director Nanea Kalani now says the only reporter who’s been invited to Hayashi’s monthly get-togethers is the education reporter from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Coincidence? Kalani was the Star-Advertiser’s education reporter before she jumped ship to go to work for the DOE communications office. 

Maybe Hayashi just doesn’t know there are many other reporters in town who regularly write about the DOE, including any of the reporters who work for TV stations, public radio, magazines or, yes, you guessed it, Civil Beat.

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But nah. That can’t be the case because as part of the self evaluation Hayashi told the BOE his department has been keeping a log of all media requests and that his staff has addressed 99% of those inquiries by the reporter’s deadline. The log, which Kalani passed along to us, shows about 60 requests a month, many by the same reporters time after time.

So perhaps Hayashi will be able to explain to the board how favoring a single reporter over others who regularly seek information from his agency is improving communications with the community, let alone the media. 

In the meantime, note to board: He’s not doing much to turn around his department’s reputation as being very difficult to deal with. Perhaps you should ask him about that?

This cat’s still in the bag: U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway has finally sorted out a dispute between The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and the U.S. Attorney’s Office over what information can be made public in a court document that explains why federal prosecutors sought a more lenient sentence for former state Rep. Ty Cullen.

The judge on Wednesday ordered prosecutors to unredact a little bit, but not very much, of the now infamous “downward departure motion” in which the government laid out in some detail certain things Cullen did to help them with their ongoing investigation.

After he was arrested, Cullen quickly figured out the feds pretty much had the goods on him for taking tens of thousand of dollars in bribes, poker chips and other things from a local businessman. The Sunshine Blog is presuming a bit here but it seems safe to say Cullen decided the best move was to try to save his okole. He got two years in prison instead of as much as four years as sentencing guidelines allowed.

The sentencing justification was at first filed under seal. Enter The Civil Beat Law Center with a motion to unseal. The law center has been systematically fighting against sealed files in myriad cases on behalf of the public’s right to know.

Assistant United States Attorney Kenneth Sorenson speaks at press conference.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson has acknowledged he made a mistake when he filed a sentencing motion that was not properly redacted. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Last month, Mollway told the government to unseal the document but at the same time allowed prosecutors to redact portions they thought should not be made public while lawyers for both sides duked it out in court. The feds, of course, redacted the whole thing.

Or at least they thought they did. In a rookie mistake by a veteran attorney — that would be Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson who has publicly taken the fall — the document was not properly blacked out. Civil Beat — the news organization not the law center — was able to view it using a simple Word program.

You can read more about that whole debacle here. But basically, after meeting with Sorenson and his boss we decided not to blow their case and publish the document. We did not, as Sorenson accused us in a recent court hearing, “extort” him and he needs to be called out for that misrepresentation. We did come to an agreement with them on which parts of the seven-paragraph motion would not tip off other bad actors as to what might be coming.

In her ruling Wednesday, Mollway acknowledged Sorenson’s faux pas. She also noted our decision to not publish the information as helping to inform her ruling about what to keep secret or not. In other cases, where news media have published information that the government tried to black out (this happens more than you think), courts have deemed the information to be in the public record at that point.

“In the present case, most of the cat has not been let out of the bag,” Mollway wrote. “Ongoing investigations can still be protected.”

In deciding what could be made public, Mollway noted that prosecutors have talked openly about Cullen’s cooperation including at his sentencing. She found no evidence that Cullen’s safety is at risk and she declined to allow the government to keep secret basic information like Cullen’s name, the case number and the sentencing date.

Beyond that, she ordered them to publish a few words here and there from a couple of paragraphs. Most of the document will remain a bunch of big black blocks for now.

As our story, published earlier this month, makes clear the U.S. Attorney’s Office is continuing to investigate other legislators and other people who are willing to pay elected officials to sell the public trust for cash and other monetary considerations. We felt it’s important that people know it’s not just Cullen, former Sen. Kalani English, and businessman Milton Choy — all of whom have been in the news many times over the last year.

Prosecutors apparently had second thoughts after agreeing that the document’s final paragraph did not reveal too much. They’ve now convinced Mollway to let them withhold the 14th, 15th and 16th words of the first sentence along with the 11th word of the second sentence (which we also chose to not to publish.)

Here’s that paragraph (the three words now giving prosecutors heartburn are in bold so you don’t have to count):

“The defendant has provided substantial information concerning other possible acts of public corruption by public officials in Hawaii, and has agreed to continue his cooperation as our investigation continues,” the document concludes. “In sum, the defendant’s cooperation has resulted in a chargeable … offense, and assisted in creating helpful leverage against other subjects as our covert investigation continues.”

And, due to another apparent prosecutorial screw-up, the judge did refuse to black out this sentence from the first paragraph: “After being arrested and being advised of his rights the defendant immediately elected to talk with agents, provide information about his conduct and that of others, including other public officials.”

Prosecutors had sought to keep out of the public eye the part about “other public officials.” But they let it slip into other documents that were filed publicly a few days ago, and as Mollway said: “At this point it makes no sense to redact these words from future filings.”

We’re not really sure why anyone would be surprised that a public corruption case would involve public officials. But you be the judge.

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

These Sunshine board editorials are the best thing for waking up! Keep up the great reporting, fighting for accountability and transparency among all elected representatives, and let's hold their feet to the fire!

Scotty_Poppins · 6 months ago

About ten years ago, the DOE had an Asst. Supe for facilities, fresh off of high level military active duty. This employee had SUPERIOR operations and management credentials, and immediately focused on the school bus system.Within ONE YEAR, this Asst. Supe. called in a consultant for a few hundred thousand dollars, and identified MASSIVE waste, fraud, and abuse by Roberts Transportation, to the tune of MILLIONS of dollars in useless fees for "ghost routes" and other mismanagement.Guess what happened to that Asst. Supe.? Yup- terminated.Don't for a SECOND forget that this is a 3rd word banana republic, run by a bunch of plantation era, petty tyrants!

Shoeter · 6 months ago

Well, they just wrapped up the monthly orchestrated display of sycophantic obeisance, er, I mean the DOE Board of Education meeting. Even Kidani attended obo 22 other legislators - so are they all, all honourable men and women - whose opinions about the Superintendent are so meaningful that she had to represent. Testimony from principal KA, followed by supporting comments from VP How High. Summary for those who couldn't attend: "Keith! You da man! You da best! Nah, you da best. So true, we all amazing. K, so we all da best and everything at DOE is perfect. (Queue crying board member: 'because Keith has accomplished what no man has ever done before). Clueless masses... your kids have the best and are lucky to have us. You're welcome Hawaii." Shaka signs, back slaps. Pau. Meeting adjourned. Same old. Probably celebrating with drinks at the State Capitol.Another episode of Fantasy Island brought to you by yet more of Hawaii's "public officials."

Overtaxed · 6 months ago

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