John Hill – Honolulu Civil Beat Honolulu Civil Beat - Investigative Reporting Wed, 22 May 2019 02:31:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Hawaii Put This Woman On A Child Neglect List — And Now She Can’t Fight It Thu, 09 May 2019 10:01:15 +0000 As a child, Julia Milam followed around her grandmother, a certified nursing assistant, as she took care of patients, some of whom stayed at their house. Her grandmother showed her how to use the blood pressure kit and stethoscope, how to feed patients. Milam was captivated by the sight of her grandmother comforting those in […]

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As a child, Julia Milam followed around her grandmother, a certified nursing assistant, as she took care of patients, some of whom stayed at their house. Her grandmother showed her how to use the blood pressure kit and stethoscope, how to feed patients.

Milam was captivated by the sight of her grandmother comforting those in need and could see the appreciation etched on their faces. She decided she would one day become a nurse. After graduating from high school, she got her nursing assistant certification, just as her grandmother had.

Today, she is finishing the courses that would allow her to apply to nursing school, everything from biochemistry to anatomy. She overcame squeamishness to complete the lab in which she had to dissect a sheep’s brain.

But the dream of becoming a nurse will likely slip through her fingers for a reason that has nothing to do with her determination or aptitude.

Instead, she’s caught up in a Catch-22 in which the state marked her for life as a neglecter of her children, but never told her of the implications or gave her a chance to appeal.

Dept of Human Services .

Julia Milam said she didn’t know for five years that she had been put on the Hawaii Department of Human Services registry for people confirmed to have abused or neglected their kids.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2012, the state took custody of her two children after child welfare workers concluded she had failed to prevent them from seeing fights she was having with her boyfriend. That’s considered a form of neglect.

Milam, while acknowledging her boyfriend battered her, denies that the children ever saw it — a fact she says is borne out in police reports.

Without notifying her, the state put her name on a list of people confirmed to have neglected or abused their children or put them at risk of that.

If Milam were to become a nurse, the hospitals and other health care facilities that might hire her would first be required by law to check the child abuse registry. Potential employers would be barred by law from hiring her in any position that involved contact with patients or residents.

She could have fought it in 2012 if she had known that being put on a registry would have such dire consequences. Now, there’s apparently nothing she can do.

“My kids and I once again will be punished for a man choosing to beat me,” she wrote in an email.

An unknown number of people were also put on the registry without notice before 2015. But like Milam, they apparently have little recourse.

Use Of Registries Expanded Nationwide

Milam’s future was tangled up in a snare unknown to most people.

Every U.S. state maintains a registry of people believed to have abused or neglected a child. These registries began in the 1960s as a way for those who dealt with child abuse and neglect – doctors and social service workers, for instance – to maintain information for internal use.

Over the years, the use of child abuse and neglect registries expanded. Legislatures required them to be consulted in screening foster or adoptive parents, people who work in day cares and – in Hawaii, at least – hospitals and health care facilities.

Julia Milam is caught up in a Catch-22 in which the state marked her for life as a neglecter of her children, but never told her of the implications or gave her a chance to appeal.

“It became something to deprive people of employment and other things,” said Robert Hatch, a Honolulu lawyer representing a plaintiff, Courtney Bird, who was not notified her name had been put on the registry, preventing her from later adopting a child.

The Department of Human Services pointed out that Hawaii law requires it to maintain a registry, and that it is one of several factors crucial to determining whether a home is safe for children.

“With a person’s permission, we can also provide this kind of context to third parties, like employers, who must also use registry checks to understand a person’s history and whether they’re able to care for children or other vulnerable people,” DHS spokeswoman Keopu Reelitz wrote in a prepared statement.

She said that federal law mandates when DHS must remove someone from the registry, adding “we work within the confines of state and federal law to maintain this registry and achieve our mission of keeping children safe.”

All states use registries for employment and to screen potential foster or adoptive parents, according to a federal survey. In Hawaii, the Department of Human Services handled 6,445 registry checks in 2018, including 3,362 from employers. The others were for people seeking licenses to run a child care business or take in foster children, as well as other categories.

Forty-four states give people the right to contest being on the registry in a hearing. The length of time someone’s name remains on the registry also varies by state, with some, such as Hawaii, including it for life and some tailoring it to the seriousness of the offense.

A Broad Definition Of Neglect

The registries differ in crucial ways from the much better known sex offender database, which can be checked by anybody with an internet connection.

For one, a person doesn’t have to be convicted of a crime to end up on the child abuse and neglect registry. In many cases, like Milam’s, it is child welfare workers, not a court, who find that parents abused or neglected a child. The definition of neglect, in particular, is very broad, and includes many actions that would never be charged as a crime, Hatch said.

If the parents or other accused abusers stipulate to family court taking over jurisdiction of their cases, they essentially are owning up to the findings of the state social workers.

Victoria Kamamalu Building. Dept of Human Services.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services, its headquarters pictured here on the right, is required by federal law to maintain an abuse and neglect registry.

Parents have strong incentives to admit to mistakes and do what the state wants, such as receiving counseling, to regain custody of their children as quickly as possible, said Margery Bronster, a Honolulu former state attorney general whose firm is representing Courtney Bird.

Fighting the accusations of neglect and abuse will likely draw out the proceedings, she said.

Given that choice, Bronster said, “Most people would take their children back.”

But some do take the other route, refusing to accept CWS services because their lawyers advise them it would be an admission of guilt, said Kayle Perez, social services division administrator for the Department of Human Services. DHS says there’s nothing to prevent people from receiving DHS-prescribed services to regain custody at the same time they are seeking a trial on whether they were abusers.

The registry no doubt includes the names of people who deserve to be there, preventing them from taking care of or working with vulnerable children.

But in Hawaii and across the U.S., critics have decried the lack of due process, even when a state follows its own rules and the information is recorded accurately.

California lawyer Esther Boynton represented a couple falsely accused by a rebellious teenage daughter of abuse. Their names ended up on the state’s registry even after a judge declared them innocent, and county and state officials would not remove them. Fifteen years later, the state and county paid them $4.1 million.

“We all want to protect children, let’s start with that,” Boynton said in an interview. “But the potential for harm is enormous … There are few things worse than being labeled a child abuser. Think about the danger of an incorrect label. What if the allegation isn’t true?”

Regaining Custody

That’s what Milam said happened to her.

In 2011, she reconnected with a man she’d known in high school. They had only dated for a brief time when he became abusive.

She says she took many steps to get away from him – filing restraining orders, moving, testifying in court against him.

Her abuser never threatened her two children, she said. And he had a mental block against hitting her when they were around, Milam said, though they no doubt sometimes heard them arguing.

One of the worst incidents happened after the children had already been placed in foster care. The man asked to meet her so he could achieve “closure,” and she agreed, hoping it would truly mark the end. But he ended up trying to kill her that night, putting her in the hospital and making the news. Child welfare workers saw that as evidence that she was still involved with the man, she said.

Milam said she met with CWS officials to ask them to correct what she saw as inaccuracies in the record, but that they refused.

Child welfare workers transferred jurisdiction of the case to family court, which it does in many cases. In accepting the family court’s jurisdiction, Milam was in effect admitting to everything in CWS’s report.

That report had identified Milam and her boyfriend “as the perpetrators of harm to the children due to their ongoing violent behaviors to each other.”

In court, Milam said she wanted to correct misstatements about her conduct. But she said her lawyer warned her not to. She might be perceived as hostile, he said, which could lead to her children being taken away from her for good.

Two years later, Milam regained custody. The state, in other words, had concluded that she provided a safe home.

What she did not know is that her name had been put on the registry, and that it would remain there for the rest of her life.

State Failed To Send Milam A Notice

For decades, CWS had been sending notices to people who had been put on the registry without ever appearing in family court, which can happen in shorter-term cases. But it was not until 2015 that CWS also made sure to notify all accused perpetrators, whether they were in family court or not, Perez said.

Milam said she never even heard about the registry until 2017. She read about it on a website run by an advocate for accused parents and decided she’d better find out if she was on it.

A CWS supervisor told her she was, for life, and that she should have received a notice shortly after her case closed.

But Milam, who kept every scrap of paper from her case, could find no such notice.

She worried about what it would mean for her nursing career to be on the registry, but had not yet finished the courses she needed to apply for nursing school, and so put it to the back of her head.

But in January, with her course work nearing an end, she pushed CWS again to document that she had been informed.

A CWS worker responded by email, “I will request your closed file and forward you a copy of the disposition letter that was sent to you.”

Nothing came. Finally, Milam put in a formal request to the department.

In early April, the state responded. It turned out there was no letter from 2012. So DHS sent her one dated April 2, 2019. It stated that the allegations of “threatened physical abuse” and “threatened physical neglect” from seven years earlier had been confirmed.

If her case had not been transferred to family court, she would have had 30 days to appeal in an administrative hearing. But since it was, she couldn’t.

Like anyone, she is free to file a motion in family court to reargue her case. But Hatch, one of Bird’s lawyers, said that his client went that route, and that it’s a dead end. To have the case dismissed, a prerequisite to regaining custody of a child, a parent has to waive the right to a trial, he said.

Dashed Dreams?

So Milam’s nursing aspirations may be doomed.

In effect, the state with its mix of laws is saying that, though it ultimately agreed she could provide a safe home for her children, she is not to be trusted as a nurse.

DHS says that’s not the intent.

“We’re not saying she’s not safe to be a nurse.” — Kayle Perez, Hawaii Department of Human Services

If an employer asked for more information about a case, and the parent consented, DHS would provide it – explaining, for instance, the nature of the accusation and what programs the parents did to regain custody.

But such explanations would not matter in Milam’s case. Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said that state law bars someone on the registry from working in a job that involves contact with patients in any facility licensed by the department. That includes hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and an array of other types of health care providers.

In fact, the department also requires periodic checks of the registry even after a person is hired, in case their names have been put on recently.

“We will investigate, and if confirmed, require the discharge,” Okubo wrote in an email.

The Department of Education, by contrast, does not require registry checks for teachers, as some states do.

Some people who’ve applied for jobs might not even know that the reason they were turned down was the registry, attorney Hatch said.

And it’s unreasonable to expect employers to look into the nuances of every case, said Boynton, the California attorney.

“They’re not going to take the risk of hiring someone the state has labeled a child abuser,” she said. “That has great weight.”

Lawsuit Challenges State Registry Rules

One ray of hope for Milam would be the success of the Courtney Bird lawsuit, which raises some similar issues.

In 2007, Bird and her husband at the time, Frank Fontana, who was in the Navy, had their second child. A month or so later, Bird returned home from a dentist’s appointment to find her husband administering CPR to the infant. The child died, and Fontana later confessed to manslaughter.

The CWS investigation “confirmed” Bird as an abuser as well and put the couple’s other daughter into foster care, even though she maintained throughout that she had no reason to believe that her husband was abusing the infant and certainly had done nothing herself.

Like Milam, she eventually regained custody of her remaining child, with DHS concluding she could provide a safe home.

She moved to Tennessee to live with her father and later remarried. But in 2012, when she and her new husband tried to adopt an HIV-positive child from Africa, she was rejected. That’s when she learned for the first time that her earlier child welfare case in Hawaii had landed her on the registry.

Unlike Milam, she did not even receive documents from CWS saying that her alleged abuse or neglect had been confirmed, Hatch said. Even if Bird had known her name was being put on the registry, why would she have delayed getting back her remaining child, stayed in a state where she had no housing and paid legal fees to fight it, her lawyers ask.

“An adversarial action deserves a right to appeal. Or at the very least, the parent should know about it.” — Parent advocate Marilyn Yamamoto

In 2015, after failing to get the state to budge, she sued, challenging the constitutionality of the state registry law that was in place when her name was put on.

Under that earlier version of the law, amended in 2017, Bird would have had to show that the complaint against her was either frivolous or made in bad faith. Her lawyers say this is an almost impossible burden, since most reports of child abuse, even if they are later found to be untrue, were sincere and serious enough to warrant investigation.

A federal district court found that she had not filed the suit in time, and she appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the harm of the state’s action was ongoing as long as she was on the registry, making her legal action timely.

Mediation between the parties recently failed, leaving it to the appeals court to issue its decision.

If Bird were to prevail in a class action lawsuit, other people in the same position would have to be notified and given some meaningful method to have their names removed, Bronster said.

Marilyn Yamamoto runs the internet group where Milam first heard about the registry. She advises accused parents who believe they’ve been denied due process in child welfare cases.

“An adversarial action deserves a right to appeal,” she said. “Or at the very least, the parent should know about it.”

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Longtime Acupuncturist Agrees To Stop Practicing To Settle Patient Complaint Mon, 29 Apr 2019 10:01:51 +0000 A longtime Honolulu acupuncturist, a primary architect of the state’s regulation of his profession, has agreed to stop practicing to settle a complaint by a patient who accused him of touching her genitals. The settlement between Mike Hashimoto and the Regulated Industries Complaints Office, was approved earlier this month by the Hawaii Board of Acupuncture. Hashimoto […]

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A longtime Honolulu acupuncturist, a primary architect of the state’s regulation of his profession, has agreed to stop practicing to settle a complaint by a patient who accused him of touching her genitals.

The settlement between Mike Hashimoto and the Regulated Industries Complaints Office, was approved earlier this month by the Hawaii Board of Acupuncture. Hashimoto served on that board for 21 years, with his last term ending in 2018.

The settlement allows Hashimoto to retain his license only for the purposes of providing clinical instruction to acupuncture students. It requires him to shut down his business, just off of Kapahulu Avenue, by June 4 and no longer treat patients.

The settlement avoided a full hearing before Hashimoto’s former board to settle the question of whether he engaged in gross carelessness and unprofessional conduct.

The disciplinary action was the first one against a Hawaii acupuncturist since 2010. More than 700 acupuncturists are licensed in Hawaii, by far the highest concentration in the United States.

Acupuncturist Mike Hashimoto agreed to stop seeing patients as part of a settlement with the board that regulates his profession.

John Hill/Civil Beat

In the agreement, Hashimoto did not admit to violating any laws or rules, but acknowledged that RICO had sufficient cause to seek a disciplinary action.

In 2016, patient Janet Moya accused Hashimoto of stroking her groin, touching her vagina and performing what he called “clitoral engorgement” with a vibrating tool.

He denied the accusations. Prosecutors declined to file charges.

But RICO continued to look into the case, eventually taking almost three years to reach a resolution. Moya, a Shiatsu massage therapist, told Civil Beat earlier this year that she was frustrated the process took so long.

She questioned whether Hashimoto was getting preferential treatment because of his long tenure on the board.

RICO officials told Civil Beat that they generally wait for the conclusion of any criminal proceedings against a licensee before taking their own action. Prosecutors may not want the licensing authority involved until the case is resolved, and licensees’ attorneys may tell them not to cooperate with RICO because of the pending criminal action.

Forty-five years ago, Hashimoto pushed for the regulation of a profession in which, he said, practitioners served mostly their own ethnic groups by word-of-mouth with no oversight. He said he worked with then U.S. Rep. Spark Matsunaga, the future senator whose father was an acupuncturist, to write the first regulatory law for acupuncturists.

During his many years on the board, he helped shape Hawaii’s laws and regulations regarding acupuncture, as well as deciding on individual license applications.

Hashimoto had been appointed to the board most recently by Gov. David Ige in 2016. It was a four-year term, but Hashimoto left in 2018, apparently because he had hit the limit of how many consecutive years board members can serve.

Hashimoto continued to serve on the board for more than two years after Moya made her accusation. The governor’s office said it did not know about it until Civil Beat asked about it and that there is no mechanism allowing the governor to find out that an appointee is facing such charges.

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A Nonprofit Honolulu Rehab Center Mixes Taxpayer Support With Lavish Pay Thu, 25 Apr 2019 10:01:47 +0000 Nearly six decades ago, a couple of recovering alcoholics in Honolulu wanted to create a refuge for others whose addictions had ripped apart their lives. They found a ruined Army chapel on Sand Island, abandoned since World War II, on land so choked with undergrowth they had to hack their way into it, according to […]

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Nearly six decades ago, a couple of recovering alcoholics in Honolulu wanted to create a refuge for others whose addictions had ripped apart their lives.

They found a ruined Army chapel on Sand Island, abandoned since World War II, on land so choked with undergrowth they had to hack their way into it, according to a 1969 article in the Sunday Honolulu Star-Bulletin & Advertiser.

The state, under Gov. John Burns, let them use the land for free. For a decade, the small staff worked without pay at Halfway House, run by a nonprofit called the Hawaii Alcoholism Foundation.

In the mid-1980s, Mason Henderson began working there and eventually became its executive director. The treatment center started to win government contracts and add beds. It employed almost 70 people to treat drug addiction as well as alcoholism. Courts referred defendants to the program.

It grew, fed largely by public money, benefiting from the tax breaks of being a nonprofit and operating for free on public land – without a lease.

So did the salaries of those who worked there – especially Henderson’s.

A Civil Beat investigation found that Sand Island Treatment Center, as it’s now known, has been paying Henderson an annual salary of as much as $500,000. That’s far beyond what other nonprofit drug treatment centers in Hawaii pay their top employees.

Sand Island Treatment Center.

The Sand Island Treatment Center, which provides rehab to about 300 people annually, pays salaries to its executive director and counselors far in excess of their peers.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Habilitat, for instance, a residential treatment center in Kaneohe with a budget slightly smaller than Sand Island’s, paid its executive director $88,637 in 2016. Hina Mauka, another Oahu treatment facility, took in revenue two-and-a-half times Sand Island’s, but its director got base pay of only $116,920.

Sand Island has said for a decade that Henderson’s pay is based on the Betty Ford Center, the nationally known facility in California. But even before it merged with the Hazelden Foundation in 2014, the Betty Ford Center had several times the revenue. The merged operation has almost 50 times the income of Sand Island.

Henderson’s base pay has continued to go up, even as Sand Island’s revenues have dropped by about 40 percent since 2007.

The rehab center also has paid several people identified in its tax returns as “counselors” or “senior counselors” well into six figures.

They include a former Miss Hawaii who went to Sand Island after being arrested in a drug bust in 2005. Tiffini Limahai was paid $119,126 as a counselor in 2009. According to public records, she has lived recently in a house in the Rocky Mountains owned by Henderson.

The counselor salaries eclipse the going rate in Hawaii, where a substance abuse counselor in 2016 made an average of $42,760.

Pay is set by a nonprofit’s board of directors. Sand Island’s six-member board has for years included  Henderson and one of his employees, the rehab’s chief financial officer Natividad Morin, despite nonprofit guidelines that warn of possible conflicts of interest from too many paid workers also acting as directors.

Because Sand Island’s meeting minutes are not public, Civil Beat could not determine which directors voted each year on Henderson’s pay — whether, for instance, employee Morin took part.

Now, in addition to $4.3 million in revenue from state contracts since the 2014 fiscal year, Sand Island is about to get another boost from taxpayers.

The city of Honolulu is expanding the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant into the public land occupied by the rehab.

The city this month bought a new home for Sand Island Treatment Center for $9 million, and plans to lease it back to the rehab for a nominal amount, perhaps as little as $1 a year, reasoning that it provides an essential service to the community.

The city also is setting aside as much as $1 million to pay for the center’s moving costs, though it doesn’t expect to spend that amount.

Henderson, 66, declined a request for an interview.

A Sand Island spokesman said Henderson was on the mainland for a medical procedure and provided a written statement defending the salaries of Henderson and others.

“Our current Executive Director has been serving the People of Hawaii in his position for nearly 35 years,” the statement said. “We also have the longest serving clinical staff in the State with the average time on staff of nearly 20 years. Even though we have always sought to accept the toughest and most desperate cases we have the highest long-term success rate of any Treatment Center in the State of Hawaii.”

It continued, “The compensation of our Executive Director was established through an independent study conducted by an outside compensation specialist, based here in Hawaii, who is well acquainted with compensation levels for executives in our non-profit sector. The Board of Directors voted to accept this recommended compensation in recognition of the Director’s many years of service and given his outstanding administrative and programmatic achievements.”

Sand Island declined to answer any follow-up questions, such as the origins of the data showing the highest success rate or who conducted the “independent study” of compensation.

The treatment center’s statement said it treats 300 Hawaii residents a year, and that it provided more than $5 million services for free in the 2017 fiscal year alone.

Generous Public Support

In its statement, Sand Island says that Gov. Burns first granted it permission to use the land in 1960 and that successive state and city governments “have seen the value of our work and have continued to allow us to occupy the Sand Island property.”

The rehab pays for improvements and repairs on the property, according to the statement.

The land is owned by the state, and leased by the city for the wastewater treatment plant. Andrew Pereira, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, said Sand Island does not have a lease with the state or the city.

The rehab was a much different operation when it first got permission to use the land almost 60 years ago. The 1969 newspaper article said the roof had come off the old Army chapel, and it was infested with rats.

The nonprofit that runs Sand Island is the Kline-Welsh Behavioral Health Foundation, named for the two founders of the original halfway house, Sid Kline and attorney Richard Welsh.

A 1974 article in the Honolulu Advertiser described the approach to the halfway house. “You go down a rutted dirt road, past the wrecked cars and trucks, the discarded refrigerators and torn mattresses, and suddenly you run into an oasis,” it said. The article described the whitewashed chapel and a set of bells from Thailand.

Until 1971, the article said, the halfway house depended on the largesse of the community. Then the rehab started getting federal money for mental health treatment.

Over the years, the rehab added state money as well and grew. A 1994 public notice announced that it was applying to increase the facility’s capacity by 93 beds, from 30 to 123.

The center currently serves a mixture of patients, including those referred by courts who have not yet arranged for insurance to cover the costs, parolees and those diagnosed with both substance abuse disorder and mental illness, funded by the state Department of Health.

Over the years, Henderson became a go-to source for journalists reporting on addiction.

“Crystal meth is a really dirty drug with nasty side effects,” he told the Advertiser in 1998. “It’s the worst drug, because of its psychotic and violent effects.”

As for Sand Island, he told a reporter in 2003, “We help people get better. We treat them as if they’re members of our own family.”

According to Sand Island’s tax returns, he works a brutal schedule, putting in 70 hours a week.

Henderson, as an individual, has contributed almost $30,000 to political campaigns since 2007, according to the state’s Campaign Spending Commission database, including both Democrats and Republicans.

He gave a total of $6,000 to James “Duke” Aiona, the former judge and Republican lieutenant governor, in his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. Democrat Romy Cachola got $4,000 from Henderson in his campaigns for the Hawaii House of Representatives, as did Republican Adrienne King in her unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2010.

Henderson has given to other big names in Hawaii politics in various campaigns, including former governors Neil Abercrombie and Benjamin Cayetano, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and former mayor Mufi Hannemann.

Betty Ford Clinic-Level Pay

In an analysis of other nonprofits that provide addiction treatment, Henderson’s salary stands far ahead of the pack.

In 2016, Henderson received base pay and other benefits totaling $486,615. Six other nonprofits that provide drug treatment paid their top executives between $62,384 and $178,857. The highest of these salaries went to the chief executive of Aloha House on Maui, which in 2016 reported revenues of $11.2 million — almost triple Sand Island’s income.

The drug treatment programs differ in various ways — one treats adolescents, one focuses on traditional Hawaiian healing. Program structures vary.

Only Sand Island and Habilitat offer two-year residential programs, said Jeffrey Nash, Habilitat’s executive director. And unlike Habilitat, Sand Island provides medically assisted therapy.

But in the end, Nash said, “We’re all pulling from the same pool of clientele.”

Since 2008, Sand Island’s tax returns have stated that Henderson’s pay is pegged to the Betty Ford Clinic.

The rehab explained in 2008, “A salary study, including a review of the salary structure of the Betty Ford Center, has been accomplished… The foundation’s long-standing position on essential and effective staff retention is a key consideration in these deliberations.” The most recent tax return includes the same wording.

In 2008, when Sand Island first made that comparison, the Betty Ford Clinic in California had revenues of $27.9 million, about four-and-a-half times Sand Island’s. Its chief executive officer was paid $494,769 — about $200,000 more than Henderson made that year.

Since then, the Betty Ford Center, still cited in Sand Island’s returns, has merged with the Hazelden Foundation. The combined operation brings in almost 50 times the revenue of the Honolulu rehab. The foundation’s president and chief executive officer made a total of $676,898 in 2016, compared to Henderson’s $486,615.

One year, 2005, Henderson also made $60,940 as a “consultant” in addition to his pay that year of $213,835.

The generous pay extends to counselors and others at Sand Island.

Several counselors have made more than $100,000 annually. In 2006, Yma Hasegawa, listed on Sand Island’s tax return from that year as a counselor and “cncl sp” — perhaps clinical specialist — was paid more than $200,000.

Those kinds of extraordinary salaries have continued in recent years.

Cathy Ahana, listed as a counselor in most years, made $153,027 in base pay and other compensation in 2016, the year of Sand Islands’ most recent publicly available tax return.

The public record contains some contradictory information about how much Ahana actually makes. In a divorce case in June 2009, she stated that she made $6,294 per month, which would add up to an annual salary of $75,528. Yet Sand Island’s tax returns state that in 2009, she made $144,754.

Public records state that she has lived at a Mililani house owned by Henderson.

Big Pay Down The Ranks

In 2004, a former Miss Hawaii named Tiffini K. Limahai checked into Sand Island about a week after being arrested and charged with drug offenses. Police said they found $1,000 worth of methamphetamine in a backpack she threw out during a raid at a Kailua house, according to news accounts at the time.

Tiffini Limahai, pictured in a Honolulu Advertiser photo, appears in court on drug charges. The former Miss Hawaii, also known as Tiffini Hercules, ended up making six figures as a Sand Island Treatment Center counselor.

Honolulu Advertiser

She pled guilty to possession but a judge deferred her sentence as long as she met court-ordered conditions, including drug treatment.

In Sand Island’s 2009 tax return, a “TK Limahai” is listed as one of the highest-paid workers, with a salary of $119,126 as a counselor. Because Sand Island would not answer follow-up questions, it was impossible to confirm that TK Limahai listed in the tax return was the 1998 Miss Hawaii who entered the program five years earlier, and she could not be reached for comment.

Public records show that a Tiffini K. Hercules – Limahai’s maiden name, which a court said she intended to start using again after a 2006 divorce —  has lived in recent years in a small mountain town 30 miles west of Denver. The house, described by the website Zillow as a “spectacular 5 level custom mountain home in a picturesque setting,” is owned by Henderson.

Still another counselor, May Llewellyn, made as much as $129,403 in 2012. Public records show that she, too, has lived in Henderson’s house in Mililani.

These salaries outstrip what most counselors in Hawaii get. The average pay for a substance abuse counselor in Hawaii in 2006 was $37,940, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nash, who heads Habilitat, said his clinical director, who has been there for 15 years, makes an annual salary of about $60,000. Brand new, unlicensed counselors can expect $35,000, he said, while more experienced ones pull in $40-$50,000.

The high pay at Sand Island isn’t just reserved for counselors.

Another worker whose salary is included in Sand Island’s tax returns is W.W. Johnson, listed simply as “maintenance.” A lawsuit filed against Sand Island in 2011 cited a maintenance worker named “Bill Johnson.”

According to the rehab’s tax returns, W.W. Johnson was paid $129,390 in 2011, and more than $100,000 in five other years. His salary has not been listed on the tax return since 2012.

The board of directors, responsible for approving Henderson’s pay and overall governance, has remained remarkably stable over the years.

Glenn Pang, a 78-year-old retired doctor, and Paul G. Ramos, 89, have served on the board at least since 1998, the earliest year that the rehab’s tax returns are included on the website Guidestar, which provides information on nonprofits.

Tad Sewell of Volcano has served on the board since 2003. According to her bio on the website of the Volcano Art Center, she came to Hawaii in her early teens when it was still a territory and graduated from the Punahou School before going to college on the mainland. She designed houses in the 1970s and started a catering business, and has served on the boards of hospitals.

Only one board member, Conrad Eyre, 76, is a recent arrival, appearing on the tax returns in 2016.

Henderson, the executive director, has been on the board since at least 1998, serving during some years as secretary.

The sixth member, Natividad Morin, was named to the board in 2003 and has served since then as its treasurer.  Morin is also Sand Island’s operations director and one of its highest paid employees, reaching a peak of $141,583 in 2008.

Civil Beat was unable to reach any of the board members.

Sand Island states in its tax returns that all board members are “independent.” It’s unclear how that squares with IRS instructions. One of the conditions for a board member being independent is that they are not compensated as an employee.

In general, nonprofit watchdogs warn against giving paid employees too much influence on the board.

The Better Business Bureau, in its Standards for Charity Accountability, states that no more than one voting board member or ten percent of the board – whichever is greater — should be a “compensated person.”  Henderson and Morin together make up 33 percent of the board.

Independent Sector, a national organization of nonprofits, foundations and corporations, says that at least two-thirds of the board should be independent, a definition that includes not being paid by the nonprofit. Sand Island’s board just meets this criteria.

“Board members who are not encumbered by having a personal financial interest in the organizations they oversee will generally find it easier to exercise their ‘duty of loyalty’ that requires that they put the interests of the organization above their personal interests and make decisions they believe are in the best interest of the organization,” according to the organization’s principles.

Among other Hawaii drug treatment nonprofits in 2016, two executive directors serve on their boards, but none of the boards include two paid workers, as Sand Island’s does. Three of the organizations do not even include the executive director on their boards, which consist only of unpaid directors.

The Internal Revenue Service faces a high bar in proving that a nonprofit executive is being paid too much if the pay falls within a certain range, said Seth Perlman, a New York City attorney whose firm specializes in non-profit law. The IRS considers the salary within a “safe harbor” if the nonprofit has done a salary survey of organizations of similar size and purpose in the same geographic area, and pays its executive a certain percentage above the median salary, he said.

A nonprofit can pay more, but must clearly state the reasons, Perlman said.

If the IRS does determine that a nonprofit has unjustifiably inflated the salary – a so-called “private benefit” – it can recover the excess, as well as penalties.

City Helping Sand Island Relocate

The state Department of Health, with $3.57 million in contracts with Sand Island since the 2014 fiscal year, said it does not have authority over a community organization’s salaries.

“This is a matter between the facility’s Board and the Director,” spokeswoman Janice Okubo wrote in an email.

In response to Civil Beat’s questions about outcomes at Sand Island, Okubo provided an October annual report from the rehab showing stellar results in a survey of former clients. None, for instance, had used in the 30 days before the survey. Okubo did not respond to questions about whether or how the health department verifies the outcome reports from a contractor such as Sand Island.

The Hawaii State Judiciary has paid Sand Island $434,650 since the 2016 fiscal year to temporarily cover the cost of treatment while defendants referred by the courts apply for insurance coverage.  At least 188 defendants have been referred to the program in the past three years, spokeswoman Jan Kagehiro said.

In choosing a rehab for referral, judges and probation officers consider the results of a defendant’s substance abuse assessment. Sometimes the defendant asks to be sent to a certain program or may already be getting treatment there at the time of sentencing, Kagehiro said.

The department declined a request for an interview to discuss the Sand Island salaries.

The Department of Health Services, meanwhile, said it could not determine how much Medicaid money goes to Sand Island, as it would be processed through health care organizations.

Meanwhile, the city earlier in April finalized the purchase of a building at 524 Kaahi Street for the relocation of Sand Island Treatment Center. The building had once been used to house former inmates about to re-enter the community.

The move is scheduled for September.

The city believes that if Sand Island ever leaves the building, it could be put to good use for housing close to the new rail line.

Pereira said Henderson’s pay is a question to be addressed by the funders of the program. The city, he said, was focused on the benefits of the program to addicts.

“If we did not find a new location it would cost the community much more,” he said, “not just in dollars, but the human equation.”

The post A Nonprofit Honolulu Rehab Center Mixes Taxpayer Support With Lavish Pay appeared first on Honolulu Civil Beat.

Well-Known Adoption Fixer Charged With Human Trafficking Mon, 25 Mar 2019 10:01:17 +0000 In its toughest criminal action to date to slow a thriving adoption pipeline to the U.S., the Republic of the Marshall Islands has charged a well-known adoption fixer with human trafficking, a potential 15 years prison sentence. The case centers on a January 2018 incident in which the fixer, Justin Aine, was stopped at the […]

The post Well-Known Adoption Fixer Charged With Human Trafficking appeared first on Honolulu Civil Beat.

In its toughest criminal action to date to slow a thriving adoption pipeline to the U.S., the Republic of the Marshall Islands has charged a well-known adoption fixer with human trafficking, a potential 15 years prison sentence.

The case centers on a January 2018 incident in which the fixer, Justin Aine, was stopped at the airport in Majuro, the Marshallese capital, just before boarding a plane to the U.S. with two women, one pregnant and the other with a month-old infant in a stroller.

Black Market Babies,” a Civil Beat investigation published in November, found that Aine has worked with at least two U.S. attorneys to facilitate adoptions of Marshallese children. The court documents in this case do not name any lawyers.

Well-known fixer Justin Aine, in the green shirt, was photographed at the Majuro airport on the day he was stopped by officials from escorting pregnant women to the U.S.

Two Marshallese women alleged to have helped Aine were charged with aiding and abetting human trafficking, with a potential sentence of seven years.

Immigration officials had received a tip that Aine would be transporting women to the U.S. to give up their children for adoptions, contrary to Marshall Islands law, which requires all international adoptions to be done through a central authority.

According to the charges filed earlier this month — first reported in the Marshall Islands Journal — the woman with the infant, Susan Koraja, admitted that she had been promised $10,000 to give up her child to a U.S. couple she didn’t know.

The Civil Beat series showed how Marshallese women in the grips of desperate poverty can find it hard to resist offers of a new start in the U.S. in return for giving up a child for adoption. They often believe they will continue to have contact with their children, the custom in the Marshall Islands where informal “child sharing” has been practiced for generations. But there are no legal guarantees that they will ever see them again.

Two decades ago, lurid stories of Marshallese women being exploited in adoptions led to a series of reforms, including a ban on soliciting pregnant mothers and the creation of a central authority to oversee all international adoptions. The Compact of Free Association, a treaty between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands, was amended to require pregnant women intending to give up a child for adoption in the U.S. to first obtain a visa. Most Marshallese can travel freely to the U.S.

Despite the reforms, Civil Beat found that a handful of U.S. lawyers have been arranging for pregnant Marshallese women to fly to the U.S., where they are kept in houses overseen by fixers until they give birth. Some start new lives in the U.S, while others return to the Marshall Islands.

The case filed this month provides a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of Marshallese adoptions, where most records are confidential.

Koraja told authorities that she was first approached when she was seven months pregnant by one of the women working with Aine, Aiti Anidreb. Anidreb introduced her to another woman, Sally Abon. The three would travel to Abon’s house to talk about the possibility of Koraja giving up her child for adoption.

The women tried to get documents and fill out paperwork to allow Koraja to travel to the U.S. while she was still pregnant, but ran out of time, Koraja told authorities. After she gave birth, the women came to the hospital with baby clothes and continued to encourage her to give up her child, she said.

Koraja was promised not just $10,000, but also help paying for school for her other children. Aine also said he would arrange for her family to move to the U.S., court documents say.

Koraja said that she felt “harassed.” When she said she didn’t want to go through with the adoption, the two women working with Aine said that Aine would be angry that he had spent time and money on her case for nothing. Aine arrived in the Marshall Islands a little more than a week before they were scheduled to fly back to the U.S.

Despite Koraja’s misgivings, on Jan. 19, 2018, she got into a cab to the airport with Aine and a pregnant women named Telma Namto, also traveling with Aine to the U.S. It would have been the first time Koraja had left the Marshall Islands.

Koraja said she tried to get the cab to stop at her husband’s workplace, but it sped on. The husband, Toreo Thomas, had refused to give his permission for the adoption, he later told authorities. When he returned from work and heard from his family that his wife had gone to the airport, he said, he couldn’t follow because he lacked the cab fare.

When Koraja was questioned by immigration authorities at the airport, she at first said she was going to visit a sister in Arkansas, but later admitted she was planning to give up her child for adoption to strangers.

Amata Kabua International Airport in the Marshall Islands is the starting point for women traveling to the U.S. for adoptions.

April Estrellon/Civil Beat

In an interview with Civil Beat last year, Aine told a much different story. Koraja’s sister, he said, approached him in Arkansas, where he lives, after she had heard he was traveling to the Marshall Islands. She asked him to help her sister Susan come to Arkansas so that she could raise the newborn herself, he said. Aine said the sister asked him if he could cover the airfare until she could pay him back.

“I said OK, I trust you,” he said.

But when he arrived in the Marshall Islands, Aine said, Susan Koraja told him she had decided to give up her baby for adoption to others.

“I said, ‘You know, that’s your baby, that’s your life’,” Aine said. He said he started helping her get a passport.

Koraja said that two days after the airport intervention, Aine and the two women visited her at her home and told her she would go to jail if she cooperated with the authorities. A short time later, Aine departed for the U.S.

All three defendants were ordered to appear in court on March 20, but only Anidreb showed up. She was released on her own recognizance. Another hearing has been scheduled for April 12.

The number of adoptions done through a government agency has dwindled in recent years, as more pregnant women choose the seemingly more lucrative option of a black market adoption.

The case appears to be the first of its kind. In the early 2000s, the Marshall Islands filed charges against a woman for soliciting a mother to give up her child for adoption, but the case fizzled when prosecutors failed to subpoena key witnesses to testify.

In another case, a Utah woman who ran an agency focusing on Marshallese adoptions pleaded guilty in 2011 to one count of aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien. She got five years’ probation.

The human trafficking charge in this case carries a far heavier penalty than solicitation, which all three defendants also are charged with.

One attorney who has frequently employed Aine as a fixer is Vaughn Cordes. The Arkansas attorney told Civil Beat that he only does adoptions involving Marshallese women already in the U.S., which is legal.

In January, however, a Kentucky couple sued Cordes. Travis and Kristina Partin alleged that when an adoption arranged by Cordes fell through, he told them “that there was a pregnant lady in the Marshall Islands due to deliver a baby boy in December of 2017 that he could fly in for an adoption.”

The Partins didn’t go for it, deciding that the deal didn’t “pass the smell test,” according to their attorney.

In his response to the lawsuit, Cordes denied offering to fly in a new birth mother from the Marshalls. He also disclosed Aine’s extensive involvement in his adoption practice, stating that the fixer had been involved in 150 “successful adoptions” as a contractor.

Cordes also has said that Aine works for other adoption attorneys besides him.

After Civil Beat sent Cordes a number of questions about his adoption procedures last year, he demanded that reporters stop contacting him.

The new case illustrates another aspect of recent Marshallese adoptions. Koraja had done an earlier adoption through the Central Adoption Authority, the Marshall Islands agency designated by law to oversee all international adoptions. The number of adoptions done through the CAA has dwindled in recent years, as more pregnant women choose the seemingly more lucrative option of a black market adoption.

The post Well-Known Adoption Fixer Charged With Human Trafficking appeared first on Honolulu Civil Beat.

This Longtime Acupuncturist Who Pushed For Oversight Is Now Under Investigation Wed, 20 Mar 2019 10:01:27 +0000 Forty-five years ago, Mike Hashimoto was the driving force behind an effort to regulate Hawaii acupuncturists, pushing for a bill that would require state oversight for the first time. He went on to serve several terms on the board that monitors acupuncturists, from the early 1980s until late last year – a total of 21 […]

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Forty-five years ago, Mike Hashimoto was the driving force behind an effort to regulate Hawaii acupuncturists, pushing for a bill that would require state oversight for the first time.

He went on to serve several terms on the board that monitors acupuncturists, from the early 1980s until late last year – a total of 21 years. The board develops acupuncture laws and regulations that shape the entire profession, as well as making decisions on licensing and disciplining individual acupuncturists.

On the wall of his office, just off Kapahulu Avenue, Hashimoto has hung photos of himself with several governors, starting with George Ariyoshi in the 1970s. The photos share the wall with diplomas and proclamations thanking Hashimoto for his contributions to Hawaii acupuncture and service on the board.

Now, at the end of his career, Hashimoto is the focus of the regulatory apparatus he helped set up. And a patient who says she was victimized by him believes the system has failed her.

Acupuncturist Mike Hashimoto, who helped set up the board that regulates his profession, has himself been accused of misconduct by a patient.

John Hill/Civil Beat

During a treatment session in 2016, the patients says, Hashimoto stroked her groin, touched her vagina and performed what he called “clitoral engorgement” with a vibrating tool.

Hashimoto vehemently denies he did any of those things, and the prosecuting attorney’s office declined to file charges.

But the state Regulated Industries Complaints Office, or RICO, still has not concluded its investigation, even though the patient, Janet Moya, made her accusation almost three years ago.

RICO,  which enforces the licensing laws of professional boards like the one that oversees Hawaii’s 767 licensed acupuncturists, says it is hamstrung by various limitations from concluding such investigations faster. For one thing, if there is also a criminal investigation, RICO steps aside and let’s prosecutors take the lead before launching a separate probe.

Hashimoto, appointed most recently by Gov. David Ige in 2016, continued to serve on the board, casting votes affecting the profession as a whole and individual cases for more than two years after the charges were made. Hawaii has by far the highest number of acupuncturists per capita of any state, according to one recent study.

When he finally did leave last fall, it was because he had hit the legal limit of eight consecutive years on the board, not because of the unresolved cloud over his conduct. He continues to treat acupuncture patients.

He did give up a separate license to do massage – because of his poor health, he said.

The governor’s office did not even know about the accusation against Hashimoto until Civil Beat asked about it, and in general there is no mechanism to alert the governor that an appointee is facing such charges.

Moya, meanwhile, says the system has let her down even though she took all the recommended steps in a case like this – contacting the police and RICO within days and giving a detailed account of what happened.  It’s taken so long that Moya, a Shiatsu massage therapist and a mother of three, set an alarm on her phone as a reminder every three months to call RICO for updates.

“You’re trying to do what’s right,” she said. “You’re trying to put it behind you. It’s good to get the updates, but it’s frustrating to know how long the process takes.”

Moya said she has been seeing a sex abuse counselor to deal with an onslaught of difficult emotions, including anxieties about treating male patients in her own massage practice.

“Now I’m just hyperaware of things, and you always have to question,” she said. “You just lose that trust in people. You want to see things in a good way, not a negative way. I don’t have that anymore.”

Janet Moya sits at Lehua Park in pearl City. John Hill story.

Janet Moya, photographed here at Lehua Park in Pearl City, is frustrated with the system that regulates licensed professionals.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She says she’s also struggled with feelings of shame for what she now believes is a failure to heed earlier warnings. She said that Hashimoto, for instance, once squeezed her nipples during a breast exam. The acupuncturist denies that charge as well.

“You feel stupid and so ashamed you would trust somebody like this,” she said. “Words can’t describe how shitty it is as a victim as you process these things.”

She also wonders if Hashimoto has gotten preferential treatment by virtue of his position on the board.

“I feel like he’s been able to navigate the system somehow to make himself look better,” she said.

In an interview at his office, Hashimoto recounted how he became an acupuncturist and ended up in Hawaii, where he would exert an out-sized influence on the profession.

Growing up in Japan, he said, he wanted to be a chiropractor like his father. But his father said he could treat a wider range of ailments as an acupuncturist. He said he got his acupuncture degree in Japan, then worked as a Shiatsu massage therapist at a hotel in Guam. He was planning on moving to San Francisco or Los Angeles to work as an acupuncturist, but had a stopover in Hawaii.

When he stepped out of the airport, he said, “I felt there was something here you cannot buy with money.”

At that time, he said, acupuncturists were completely unregulated, with practitioners serving their own ethnic groups entirely by word-of-mouth. He was troubled by acupuncture’s status as an underground business. He worked with then U.S. Rep. Spark Matsunaga, the future senator whose father was an acupuncturist, to write a law regulating the profession for the first time.

The regulatory system has grown and evolved considerably since then, often with his input on the board. Even though he is now a target, he believes it is working as it should.

But like Moya, he said it has taken a heavy emotional toll. He said he had a heart attack – his fifth – a few months after Moya accused him.

“Just to be accused by this kind of harsh accusation, it really hurt my pride,” he said.

“Words can’t describe how shitty it is as a victim as you process these things.” — Janet Moya

Moya said Hashimoto had been helping alleviate her pain and stress for two decades when she made an appointment to see him on a Sunday morning in July 2016.

As he was massaging her legs, she said, his fingers would briefly touch her vagina, which she at first dismissed as an accident, especially considering he had treated her for so many years.

She said there were some other odd moments that she at first discounted. When she grabbed her belly and joked about how much weight she had gained over the years by saying the Japanese word for “fat,” for instance, she said that Hashimoto replied, “It’s beautiful.”

But as Moya was laying on her back and Hashimoto massaged her inner thigh and groin, she said, he asked if he could “check something” and pulled her panty to one side. He rubbed her clitoris back and forth, looking at it closely as if he were inspecting it, she alleges.

In response to her question about what he was doing, he replied, “Frigid, no response,” Moya said, and told her he thought that all her stress was from “sexual tension.”

She said he asked her if she knew the term “clitoral engorgement” and whether she masturbated. Then, he took out a vibrating tool and placed it over her panties, she said, until she pushed his hand away. As he moved around the table to massage her head, she said, she lay there trying to process what had just happened.

In a daze, she made another appointment. But it didn’t take long, Moya said, for her to conclude that what had happened was anything but normal. Why, she asked, if she had gone in for treatment of her neck, shoulders and lower back, had Hashimoto focused on “sexual tension”?

Later that day, Moya attended a birthday party in Mililani for a good friend’s child and told that friend about it. The friend, a former sex crimes prosecutor, told her she should report it to the police and RICO.

“I urge you to please review my case and take immediate action to have his license revoked,” she wrote to RICO. “You must prevent this from happening to anyone else.”

Acupuncturist Mike Hashimoto has been photographed with Hawaii governors and other officials during his long tenure as a pioneer in the field.

John Hill/Civil Beat

In a written response to RICO, Hashimoto denied every aspect of Moya’s story and accused her of having “sexual delusions.”

He wrote that he did not respond “It’s beautiful” to Moya’s joke about her belly.

“Perhaps she wanted me to reply, `It’s beautiful’,” he wrote. “This may be Mrs. Moya’s psychological issue.”

Massaging the legs is normal for a low back problem, he said. He denied touching her vagina or clitoris. He did use a vibrating tool, he said, but it was a professional instrument used in Japan to remove cellulite.

“I suspect that she fantasized and subconsciously wanted me to (be) saying those words and acts,” he wrote.

He also questioned the “concept that female(s) are always victims” and that “false accusers win most of the time in this rude society.”

Earlier, in a letter to Moya 11 days after the treatment session, he defined the term “clitoral engorgement” and wrote that he had been mistaken to attribute her stress to “intimacy” problems. He also enclosed a $500 check, the cost of her past several treatments, and suggested she’d be better served by a different acupuncturist.

Regulation Is Falling Short

Hawaii’s acupuncture law does not go into much detail about the actions that warrant discipline against a practitioner, referring only to “professional misconduct.”

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that certifies acupuncturists, is more specific. Acupuncturists can choose to be certified by the commission and, in some states, are required to be. Hawaii is not one of them and Hashimoto is not certified.

One cause for discipline, the commission states, is “failing to maintain professional boundaries in relationships with patients, or in any way exploiting the practitioner/patient trust.”

RICO says it has not taken disciplinary action against any acupuncturists’ license since 2010, a few months before Hashimoto started his most recent tenure on the board.

The office cites various reasons why nothing has been resolved in Moya’s case almost three years later, even as Hashimoto continues to practice and, until last fall, serve on the board.

The Honolulu Police Department took statements from Moya’s husband, mother and a friend, who all verified that she had talked about the incident right away. But in early 2017, the Honolulu prosecuting attorney’s office, for unstated reasons, declined to file second-degree sexual assault charges.

RICO waited for the resolution of the criminal case.

“We normally just watch on the sideline,” said Esther Brown, the acting RICO head.

Prosecutors often don’t want the licensing agencies to get involved in the investigation, she said. And RICO doesn’t want to make victims go through the ordeal of repeating their stories to a second set of interviewers.

Also, the defense attorney in the criminal case may advise the licensee not to cooperate with RICO’s investigation for fear it could be used by prosecutors.

If a licensee is convicted, RICO can use that on its own to take action without further investigation.

In serious cases, RICO is empowered by law to suspend a licensee until the case is resolved. But Brown said that statute is rarely used. It requires a hearing in 20 days, an almost impossible goal. The licensee’s attorney would likely ask a hearing officer for extensions that would drag out the case.

RICO got 5,215 complaints in the fiscal year that ended last June 30 for all the professions it regulates, from doctors to contractors to private investigators. Of those, 2,864 were forwarded to field units for further review. On average, it takes almost a year-and-a-half for a case to result in legal charges being filed before the regulatory board.

Hashimoto posted a newspaper ad in June saying he was closing his business — prompted, he said, by his poor health. But he says the ad generated more business, and he decided to continue working part-time.

“We normally just watch on the sideline.” — Esther Brown, the acting head of RICO

As a licensee, he is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence, even if it takes three years. But what about his service on the board, a position of honor that is the prerogative of the governor?

In 2016, a few months before the alleged incident, Ige nominated Hashimoto for another four-year term on the board. The governor’s memo to the Legislature states that his term would expire on June 30, 2020. The Legislature approved the appointment.

Despite the 2020 date listed on the governor’s nomination, Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong said that Hashimoto had always been expected to leave the board in 2018, to comply with a law that limits members to eight consecutive years.

That’s not how Hashimoto says it happened. It was only last summer, he said, that Carol Kramer, then the board’s executive officer, realized Hashimoto was about to hit the eight-year limit and informed him he would have to leave.

Hashimoto said that Kramer was aware of the accusation against him. He said he also discussed his service on the board with one of the investigators, a man whose name he can’t remember.

“I said, ‘Those kinds of accusations, should I resign from the board?’ And the investigator said, ‘No, you don’t have to,’” Hashimoto said.

Moya said she wrote a letter to the president of the board at the same time she sent her complaint to RICO. She never heard back.

It’s unclear whether the whole board knew of the accusation. Investigations are kept confidential until they are presented to the board, said William Nhieu, a spokesman for the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

“Ideally, a conscientious board member would disclose that,” said Brown, the acting RICO head. “I don’t know that that’s a requirement.”

The board’s minutes normally reflect that a member is leaving – they often receive recognition for their service, as Hashimoto has in the past. But the minutes following Hashimoto’s departure are silent about him.

Moya, meanwhile, fumes that Hashimoto is able to continue with his normal life while the bureaucratic machinery grinds on. She finds it hard to believe that anyone would think that she would make a false claim, as Hashimoto alleges. Why, she asks, would she put herself willingly through such an ordeal?

“For every victim who comes forward,” she said, “there’s nothing to gain.”

The post This Longtime Acupuncturist Who Pushed For Oversight Is Now Under Investigation appeared first on Honolulu Civil Beat.

Justice Served? A Highly Unusual Hawaii Law Is Costing This Woman Her Home Thu, 14 Feb 2019 10:01:47 +0000 One day in February 2000, four teenagers burst through Robert Wong’s front door in Pearl City and told him to lie face-down on the carpet. One of the intruders carried a rifle. He demanded to know if anyone else was in the house. He kicked Wong as he lay there. Then the rifle went off. […]

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One day in February 2000, four teenagers burst through Robert Wong’s front door in Pearl City and told him to lie face-down on the carpet. One of the intruders carried a rifle. He demanded to know if anyone else was in the house. He kicked Wong as he lay there.

Then the rifle went off.

Wong felt a shot of pain in his upper left leg, then a warm feeling as his blood flowed out onto the carpet. The teenagers ran. The whole ordeal lasted only a minute or so.

It didn’t take long for the police to round up five suspects – the four who went into the house and one who waited outside by the car. They got various sentences, including 20 years for the shooter.

But almost two decades later, the drama of that brief, violent moment is coming to a crescendo once again in two houses, one in Pearl City and another 10 miles away in Ewa Beach.

In Pearl City, Wong deals daily with the pain and disability caused by the bullet that shattered his hip. One leg is two inches shorter than the other. His wife has to clip his toenails and he can’t walk more than a block or two.

And finally, he’s on the verge of making someone pay.

That someone is Deborah Villa, a 60-year old Ewa Beach resident who raised five children on her own, most recently while working as an aide at a Schofield Barracks child care center.

Deborah Villa Ewa Beach home.

Deborah Villa, who may be soon be forced to move, at her Ewa Beach home.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Deborah’s son Sharone was one of the teenagers who barged into Wong’s house in 2000, though he was not the one who shot him. Sharone was 16 at the time. He did several months at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in Kailua before being released to a program for troubled adolescents.

A few years after the robbery, Deborah Villa qualified for a low-income housing program in which a group of participants build each other’s houses, working on weekends and holidays over a year or so. The sweat equity made it possible for Villa to achieve what she had thought was impossible – owning a home in Hawaii.

She hauled heavy beams to the roof and got a rash all over her arms from installing fiberglass insulation. She discovered a penchant for using a nail gun, and liked to show off her tool belt.

“It was kind of cool and sexy, being a female and doing a man’s job,” she said.

When the crew finally finished in 2005, she threw a housewarming party. About 50 people came, and they roasted a pig and sang karaoke late into the night. At one point, two daughters sang Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love,” with tears streaming down their faces.

Today, that house is her only asset.

And after years of court procedures, Wong is about to take it.

Hawaii may be the only state where he could do it. A highly unusual state law places no cap on a parent’s liability for a minor child’s willful actions.  Another allows a judgment against several people to be imposed on any one of them in such cases.

In combination, the two statutes mean Villa will almost surely lose her house. With nowhere to go and no other resources, she fears becoming homeless.

To Wong, the case represents long-delayed reparations to a crime victim. To Villa, draconian consequences for someone who was not even there.

In either case, it raises questions. How do Hawaii criminals and their families repay their “debt to society”? When does it end?

A Minute Of Chaos, And A Shot

Villa remembers Sharone as a sweet child, despite physical abuse from his father. At the age of 7 or 8, he used to cook eggs on Mother’s Day and bring them to her in bed. He’d say, “You stay in bed all day, I’ll take care of you,” she recalls.

But by the time he was 16, Villa said, Sharone was getting into trouble, disappearing from home for days at a time – though she says she had no idea of the extent of it. She said she’d try calling the police to bring him home, but they had other priorities.

“You can’t get no help at all,” she said. “And I tried.”

A search of public records did not turn up any serious offenses committed by Sharone Villa, who now lives in Florida, since that day in 2000 — just traffic infractions.

“I was a dumb kid that wanted to hang out with the older crowd, which got me into trouble,” he said in an interview. “If I could turn back time, I would.”

In the months leading up to the crime, he was spending much of his time at the house of a friend, Nate Penn.

“We’re always together,” Penn told police in 2000 after they were caught.

One of the five who took part in the robbery, Masaaki Nemoto, knew Wong’s son and had spent time in the house, and so was familiar with the layout, according to court records.

Villa, Nemoto and Penn cased the house, driving up and down the street several times in the two weeks leading up to the robbery.

A fourth teenager, Joel Sanders, was also in on the plan. And Sanders had a rifle.

On the day of the crime, Nemoto picked up Penn and Villa, and then drove to Sanders’ house. They picked up a fifth teenager, Lawrence Manuel, at a pool hall and drove to Manuel’s house to get blue bandannas they used to mask their faces, according to court records.

In an interview with police, Penn said he and Villa urged Sanders to take the bullets out of the rifle but he refused.

Penn described the scene outside Wong’s house. While Nemoto stayed by the car, he said, he and Villa and Manuel were getting cold feet.

“We was thinking, do we actually, really want to do it?” Penn told police. “We stalled outside for at least a good five minutes.”

Sanders tried to get Penn to take the gun, but he refused. Then he turned to Villa, according to Penn’s account, who responded, “I’m definitely not taking the gun, just go ahead and get it away from me.”

Despite their reluctance, Sanders persuaded the others to go through Wong’s gate and approach the door, Penn said. Then Sanders led the way in, followed by Penn, Villa and Manuel. Manuel later told police that Villa was armed with a hatchet.

Within a chaotic minute or so, Wong had been forced to the ground, and Sanders had shot him, apparently by accident.

The teenagers ran out, piled into the car, and drove toward Diamond Head, where they got rid of the gun and some clothes. All the while, the other teenagers yelled at Sanders, Penn said, asking “why did he have to do that?”

They talked several times about turning themselves in, and even got within a few minutes drive of the police station. But they’d heard that Sanders might be going to the mainland, and were afraid “all this is going to get turned on us,” Penn told the police.

Soon enough, the whole thing had unraveled and all the teenagers were in custody. They admitted the crimes. Sanders, the shooter, was tried as an adult even though he was 17. He’s still serving his 20-year sentence, scheduled to be released in 2022.

The Honolulu Advertiser covered the trials of two of the defendants in the Robert Wong home invasion robbery.

Three of the defendants were adults at the time. Penn ended up spending a little more than five years in prison and Nemoto did six years. Manuel was in and out of the prison system for 12 years for the robbery and various other reasons, according to a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

Villa, the youngest at 16, went through the juvenile prison and was released to an outside program after several months behind bars.

A Shattered Hip, And Anger

When the teenagers burst into his house, Wong was drinking a beer and having something to eat, according to hospital records he later submitted in his civil case against them. At the time, he was working for a wholesale food company.

Wong’s daughter and her boyfriend and his son were also in the house, but weren’t aware of what was going on until it was all over. Wong’s son called 911.

At the hospital, a social worker wrote that Wong said he was “doing well emotionally and just puzzled as to why this incident occurred.”

But the consequences had not fully revealed themselves. One of the bones in his hip joint had been shattered. One leg was now shorter than the other and he would have a chronic limp.

He spent six days at The Queen’s Medical Center, at a cost of more than $20,000, followed by a week at a rehab facility and more outpatient treatment.

“They came to my house, shot my leg and now I’m permanently crippled,” Wong, now 72 and retired from an insurance agent job, said in an interview.

“I can’t even dance. Do you see a lot of crippled people dance?”

Wong said he can’t walk more than a block or two before he has to find a place to sit.

“Every morning, I can’t put on my socks,” he said. “I can’t clip my toenails. My wife clips my toenails for me.”

As for the young men who caused the damage, he said, “I don’t know if they even feel sorry.”

It’s taken an emotional toll. He angers more easily. “This incident changed my life, even my personality,” he said.

So Wong took the path that the law opened for him — he sued the perpetrators. In 2003, he presented evidence of his pain and suffering, severe mental and emotional distress, reduced enjoyment of life, disability, medical expenses and loss of income.

A Circuit Court judge imposed damages of $20,456 for the time Wong spent in the hospital and $360,000 in general damages. In addition, each of the teenagers were on the hook for $50,000 in punitive and exemplary damages, except for Sanders, the shooter, who was liable for $100,000.

The judge also noted that, under Hawaii law, the parents of the two minors in the case – Villa and Sanders – were considered responsible for the actions of their children and would also owe money to Wong.

No Cap On a Parent’s Liability

Hawaii Revised Statute 577-3 is deceptively brief, considering its implications.

After some general discussion of parental custody, it states, “The father and mother of unmarried minor children shall jointly and severally be liable in damages for tortious acts committed by their children.”

Every state has a statute assigning parents some legal responsibility for the actions of their minor children. The statutes also gives people who have been harmed by minors – whether in car crashes, crimes or simple misconduct – a way to recover some money.

“Every parent has this nightmare,” said Gary Wickert, a Wisconsin attorney who compiled a 50-state comparison of parental liability laws. “Minors, especially males, can  get involved in these things. These statutes can impose liability.”

But almost all the laws – some states have more than one for different categories – come with limits, generally several thousand dollars or less. A few go as high as $30,000.

Only two states – Hawaii and Louisiana – allow unlimited liability for the willful damage and injuries caused by children. (Some allow uncapped liability in certain categories, such as motor vehicle accidents or for misconduct unlikely to result in high-dollar damage, such as graffiti or damage to school property.)

“Putting a limited potential liability on parents is government’s way of saying you have a duty to be good parents,” Wickert said. “On the flip side, even good parents sometimes get screwed because their kids are out of control.”

Hawaii’s law dates to 1846, more than a century before statehood, Wickert notes in his study, and “today remains one of the most broadly applied, with no monetary limits.”

Only two states – Hawaii and Louisiana – allow unlimited liability for the willful damage and injuries caused by their children.

There’s another aspect of Hawaii’s law that comes into play in a case like Wong’s. When damages are imposed on a group of people who committed an intentional wrongful act, any one of them can be forced to pay the full amount.

The bottom line: Deborah Villa could be forced to cover all of Wong’s damages.

‘Nobody Can Take This Away From You’

A few years after the robbery, Villa was telling a neighbor how much she’d like to own a home in Hawaii, but couldn’t possibly afford it. The  neighbor suggested she look into a program run by the Self-Help Housing Corporation of Hawaii.

The program puts together teams of 10 to 15 families who work on weekends and holidays to build each other’s houses. The goal is to complete one house per month. A little more than half the labor is done by the families, with the rest contracted out to experts such as plumbers.

The pay-off is a low interest loan that can make the house affordable.

Deborah Villa Ewa Beach home with foreground news article on how she was part of a program that she and others help build their own homes.

Deborah Villa looks at laminated copies of newspaper articles from 2004 about the program she took part in that allowed a group of people to build each other’s houses

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Villa applied to the program and qualified. In late 2004, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin did a story about Villa and how she was having a hard time meeting the requirement that each family put in 32 hours of labor a week, since she was by herself. Her other children had moved out and her remaining daughter was too young to do construction work.

“This is how you really get to appreciate your house,” Villa told a reporter. “Nobody can take this away from you.”

The newspaper published a follow-up the next month. After hearing about Villa’s plight, dozens of people had signed up to help finish the houses, including 115 from Hickam Air Force Base.

“I am really overwhelmed,” Villa said.

Futile Attempts To Collect

By 2013, Wong had failed to collect from the five perpetrators or the parents of the minors, Villa and Rosetta Cash, the mother of Sanders. Wong went to court and renewed the judgment, giving him 10 more years to try to collect.

Cash was the only one to fight against the judgment when Wong first filed suit. She argued that a court decided that Sanders, her son, should be tried as an adult, and so he should bear the judgment himself. She denied that she had not been a good parent. Her other children turned out well, she said, including one who went into the military and another who became a firefighter.

Cash’s name remained on the judgment until at least 2013. But court filings do not show she ever paid anything. She died in early 2009 with no property to her name, according to public records.

Wong’s attorneys queried financial institutions trying to find assets that belonged to the perpetrators, but mostly came up empty.

One exception was Nemoto, who knew Wong’s son and had waited by the car during the robbery.

When Wong’s lawyers tried to garnish his wages in 2014, Nemoto filed a declaration with the court saying he was barely getting by.

After prison, he wrote, he got married and was “trying my best to find work and support my family,” including two stepchildren and one biological child. He said he made about $700 a month working as a waiter at two different places.

Nemoto said he had not committed any other crimes and was making restitution payments to Wong. But he couldn’t afford to give up the $108.49 Wong was seeking from his bank account.

The court disagreed and ordered the money turned over.

Wong’s attorneys found some other cash as well. By the middle of 2015, they’d garnished $928.17 from Nemoto’s wages and $589.59 from Villa, who was getting paid about $1,185 every two weeks as a child care aide.

These sums came nowhere close to satisfying the judgment Wong had won in 2003. But in 2013, Villa had been forced to answer questions in a deposition. Did she own stocks, bonds, CDs? How about stamp or coin collections, antique furniture, art work, valuable jewelry?

The answers were mostly no. But Villa revealed she did have one asset. Her house.

A Stack of Court Filings

The ensuing struggle over the house is documented in stacks of court filings. The twists and turns included a failed mediation, property appraisals and accusations of fraud after Villa transferred the house to a different son. (She says she did it so that the son, who had better credit than she did, could get a home equity loan to pay off Wong.)

Newspaper legal ad announcing the sale of Deborah Villa’s house to pay judgment in the robbery case

In June, the court granted Wong’s request for a judgment of $244,533,  a figure that took into account the appraised value of the house and the amounts that Villa still owed.

In January, Villa’s house was offered up in an auction. The only bidder was Wong, who got it for one dollar.

The only remaining step is for a judge to hold a hearing confirming that the auction was done properly. Villa said she was told by Self-Help Housing that they were not informed about the auction, as they believe they should have been as the holder of her mortgage.

Another unanswered question is how Villa was able to qualify to buy the house in the first place. A lien search by the title company apparently did not show Wong’s judgment against her, which might have disqualified her from getting a mortgage.

After almost two decades of court struggle, both Villa and Wong are bitter, with starkly different views of what is fair.

“Do I feel bad? Yes, I do,” Villa said. “I feel really sad it happened to him.”

As might be expected, the judgment strained Villa’s relationship with her son Sharone.

“When I found out my house was being taken away, I wouldn’t even speak to him,” she said. “It was a long time. Then I said, `He is my son.’ But I was heartbroken. This is all I have. This is it.”

Deborah Villa Ewa Beach home.

Deborah Villa lost her Ewa Beach home to settle a restitution judgement of nearly $250,000. Robert Wong, who was shot in the robbery that involved Villa’s son, bought the house at auction for $1.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Despite his regrets over what he did, Sharone Villa, too, thinks it’s unfair.

“My take, I think it’s really sad they’re going after her alone and trying to take something she actually worked for,” he said. “She’s the only one taking the fall for it. I think it’s very sad, and very wrong.”

Wong, meanwhile, says he expects to get little value from the house, after accounting for the amounts Villa owes and legal fees.

“She’s the one initiating the whole thing,” he said of Villa. “She’s the one causing me so much pain. I hate her.”

Wong strongly supports the idea that parents should be held accountable for the actions of their children. If Hawaii’s law goes too far, he said, fine — someone should try to change it.

He could keep trying to go after the other perpetrators. But they either don’t have assets or have moved to other parts of the U.S. Wong said he can’t afford to continue tracking them down. Villa, he said, should sue them to recover their share of the damages.

But Villa said she can’t afford to track them down, either.

“I understand the law,” she said. “This is something my son did. But I’m going to be on the street.”

Still, she tries to keep her head up.

“It’s going to work out,” she said. “I have faith.”

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Mysterious Manoa Tree Hackers May Be Peddling Hallucinogenic Bark Thu, 07 Feb 2019 10:01:16 +0000 Someone’s been hacking the bark from acacia trees in Manoa Valley District Park. And while the culprits have not been caught, some residents have identified a motive — a lively market in Hawaiian acacia bark, which reportedly can send you on a spiritual psychedelic journey. “I want to give thanks and praise for helping us […]

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Someone’s been hacking the bark from acacia trees in Manoa Valley District Park.

And while the culprits have not been caught, some residents have identified a motive — a lively market in Hawaiian acacia bark, which reportedly can send you on a spiritual psychedelic journey.

“I want to give thanks and praise for helping us mere mortals achieve inner heights!!” a customer wrote on a website for one acacia purveyor on Oahu.

No one knows for sure whether the Manoa Park hackers are using it themselves or selling it. Or perhaps the attacks are the random acts of tree haters — though that seems odd, considering only the acacias have been targeted and the bark is not left on the ground.

Damaged Acacia Trees at Manoa Park.

Damaged acacia trees at Manoa Park.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I would assume they’re trying to sell it,” said Angela Richards Dona, a Manoa resident who’s been researching it with her husband Alessandro.

Alessandro first noticed people messing with the tree bark about a year ago. The species, Acacia confusa, is native to Southeast Asia, but has invaded much of the tropical Pacific.

The people Alessandro saw the first time were using something small, like a knife or pick, to take little pieces of bark.

In December or so, Manoa residents started noticing much larger gashes in the tree trunks that looked like they had been hacked by a machete. The six or so trees that have been damaged are in an isolated strip of the park mostly frequented by joggers and dog-walkers during the day.

The hackers, at least recently, appear to be working only at night.

In January, Manoa residents started talking about the damage on the social media website Nextdoor. One identified the perps as a white couple in their 30s “clearly high on something that makes them want to do this for hours at a time.”

Residents notified the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, which put notices on the trees reminding people that it’s against city regulations to deface a tree.

“It is strange for people to be scraping the bark off of trees,” said parks spokesman Nathan Serota. Park employees could only recall one other incident of tree molestation many years ago at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park.

“We really want to discourage it because it’s not good for the tree,” Serota said.

Tree wounds don’t heal. Instead, the tree cuts off nutrients to the damaged part, making it susceptible to funguses and pests, leading to decay. Enough structural damage and the tree poses a danger to passersby and must be cut down, Serota said.

“We want to stress to the public that trees are a benefit to everyone,” he said. “We hope people don’t disrespect the trees or harm them.”

Damaged Acacia Trees at Manoa Park.

The Honolulu Parks Department posted signs in January warning against stripping bark from acacia trees at Manoa Park.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The signs the department posted  in mid-January seem to be having some effect. There was a little more bark-stripping right after that, but since then it has stopped. The parks department plans to monitor the trees and take steps to prevent decay.

Hawaiian acacia root bark can be easily found on the internet. (There’s nothing to suggest that any of these businesses are connected to the Manoa park incidents.)

One of them is a website called The Acacia Store, with the motto “Intellectual Exploration.” The website says that “our Acacia is wild harvested here on Oahu, Hawaii. Acacia trees were brought to Hawaii from Taiwan in the 1920’s and planted by the Division of Forestry by the thousands.”

One customer responded with five out of five stars and the comment, “Oh My God!!”

A message left on the website Wednesday afternoon was not returned.

Another website for a Big Island business states that “This Acacia Confusa Root Bark is from the lush and majestic slopes below the rain forests atop Hawaii’s volcanic mountains.”

“Acacia Confusa is not native to Hawaii and is considered an invasive tree that is displacing the natural habitat, so you are doing the environment a favor by purchasing Acacia Confusa Root Bark from us.”

“However we still harvest sustainably, from mature trees, making sure to only take a little bit without causing any harm to the tree … Please note that our product is NOT INTENDED FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION, Product to be used for Textile Dye, Tanning Leather, Making soaps or incense.”

A website that offers acacia bark from Taiwan has this to say about its connection to ayahuasca, a psychedelic substance used in South American spiritual ceremonies.

The acacia “contains high concentrations of interesting alkaloids in its root and trunk bark. It appears attractive for use in ayahuasca analogs, though at this point, experience with such preparations remains limited.”

“Little research has been done, successful ayahuasca preparations and direct oral activity using the root bark and trunk bark have been reported.”

The bark contains a substance with a long chemical name, abbreviated as DMT. Its legality is murky. Several websites say that eBay banned sales of acacia bark in 2017.

Whatever its properties, many Manoa residents want whoever’s been stripping the bark to knock it off.

“It belongs to everyone,” Angela Dona said. “It’s just not right.”

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These Lawmakers Think The State Should Charge $20 To Unblock Porn Sites Tue, 05 Feb 2019 10:01:10 +0000 Want to watch porn on the internet? No problem. Just fork over $20 to the state of Hawaii to remove a blocker. That’s the apparent intent of three bills before the Legislature touted as efforts to fight human trafficking. The bills are similar to ones introduced in more than a dozen other states over the […]

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Want to watch porn on the internet?

No problem. Just fork over $20 to the state of Hawaii to remove a blocker.

That’s the apparent intent of three bills before the Legislature touted as efforts to fight human trafficking.

The bills are similar to ones introduced in more than a dozen other states over the past year. They’re being promoted by a man who once filed lawsuits in several states to marry his own computer as a protest against gay marriage, and sued Apple for allowing him to become addicted to porn, according to news reports.

Civil Beat contacted the man, Chris Sevier, by phone. “Sorry, I’ve got to go, buddy,” he said before ending the call.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard said he introduced a version of the bill last year after being contacted by John Gunter, an associate of Sevier from an entity called the Clean Services Foundation.

Gunter and another man joined Sevier in a Utah lawsuit in which he sought to marry his computer, saying they planned to have a polygamous relationship, according to news reports.  A federal judge threw out the lawsuit.

Senator Mike Gabbard cesspool forum.

Sen. Mike Gabbard introduced one of the bills that would require people to pay a $20 fee to watch online pornography, saying, “A lot of this is having a conversation about these issues.”

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gunter did not respond to interview requests.

Gabbard said he was unaware of Sevier’s past, but said he hoped the bill would raise money to combat sex trafficking.

“A lot of this is having a conversation about these issues,” he said.

Gabbard’s Senate Bill 254 and House Bill 567 by Rep. Sam Kong are companion measures. They require those who sell or manufacture products that connect to the internet to include a mechanism to block child pornography, revenge pornography and websites that facilitate prostitution and human trafficking.

The block could be removed if consumers show they’re at least 18, acknowledge they have been informed about the dangers of removing the filter and pay $20 to the state.

It’s unclear what the $20 gets you. Obviously, it’s not meant to open the door to the blocked illegal content such as child pornography. Rather, the bills seem to imply that the $20 would allow access to legal pornography. The manufacturers of computers, smart phones and the like also could charge the consumer a “reasonable” fee.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Manufacturers would have to maintain a reporting mechanism to allow consumers to report porn that was not blocked by the filter, or legitimate content that was filtered.

The fees would go to a fund that would allow the state to make grants to organizations fighting human trafficking.

HB 567 is scheduled to be heard by the Intrastate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. The other measures don’t appear to have hearings scheduled yet.

House Bill 647 by Rep. Sharon Har includes many of the same provisions, with some variations. All three of the bills garnered co-sponsors — more than 20 in the case of Har’s bill.

Har and Kong did not respond to requests to comment on the bills.

Rep Sharon Har floor session. 3 may 2016.

Rep. Sharon Har introduced a House version of the anti-pornography bill.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I do understand why so many lawmakers are signing onto it” considering it purports to fight human trafficking, said Mandy Fernandes, policy director of the ACLU of Hawaii. “But if passed, it would amount to an unconstitutional act of state censorship.”

ACLU affiliates have been tracking similar legislation in more than a dozen states, she said.

Courts have already made it clear that such fees don’t pass constitutional muster, Fernandes said.

“You cannot censor adult’s access to online speech,” she said. “It violates the First Amendment.”

A Tinder Tax?

Another concern is whether the terms in the bill might be interpreted too broadly. What, exactly, is a hub that facilitates prostitution, for instance? Could it include Facebook or Craigslist or Tinder?

“Is this a Tinder tax?” Fernandes asked.

A consumer would have to go to court to get a legitimate site unblocked.

The Media Coalition, a New York organization that is also tracking the bills, cites several court decisions that have found that mandatory filters run afoul of the Constitution. The group, which advocates for First Amendment protections, says the bills amount to a taxation on speech. Software that accurately filters out banned content and allows permissible websites, all reflecting community standards, is impossible to develop, the group says.

“I do understand why so many lawmakers are signing onto it … But if passed, it would amount to an unconstitutional act of state censorship.” –Mandy Fernandes, policy director of the ACLU of Hawaii.

Consumers could be forced to pay the $20 fee three or four times for each computer, after accounting for modem, router and wifi. A family could end up paying hundreds of dollars, the coalition says. And customers could simply buy equipment in other states to avoid the stigma of deactivating the filter.

So far, the bills in other states have run into some flack. Sevier had named it the “Elizabeth Smart Law” for the Utah woman whose kidnapping in 2002 garnered national attention. But Smart sent a cease-and-desist letter to get her name removed, The Associated Press reported.

An Arizona version of the bill introduced a new twist. The money raised from consumers would help pay for a border wall with Mexico.

Sevier, who according to public records lived most recently in Tennessee and Alabama, has found his way into the news for other reasons. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment after being accused of stalking country music star John Rich, the Daily Beast and others reported. Then there was the 2013 suit against Apple for failing to warn him about the dangers of porn, which he said led to his failed marriage, according to Time magazine.

In at least one other state, a lawmaker withdrew the Sevier-inspired bill after learning more about the man who pushed it. The Associated Press reported that Rhode Island state Sen. Frank Ciccone killed the bill after learning of its “dubious origins.”

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State Improperly Shared Unsubstantiated Reports Of Child Abuse For Years Thu, 24 Jan 2019 10:01:40 +0000 The state of Hawaii has been improperly using unconfirmed reports of child abuse or neglect when evaluating potential foster parents or licensing day care facilities, prompting the federal government to order it to stop. Federal law allows states to retain unconfirmed child abuse reports to be used in case of subsequent abuse complaints about the […]

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The state of Hawaii has been improperly using unconfirmed reports of child abuse or neglect when evaluating potential foster parents or licensing day care facilities, prompting the federal government to order it to stop.

Federal law allows states to retain unconfirmed child abuse reports to be used in case of subsequent abuse complaints about the same parents or caregivers. The idea is that such reports, though not initially proven, might later help investigators establish a pattern.

But Hawaii’s Department of Human Services was going further, putting the unconfirmed reports on its central child abuse and neglect registry. Other DHS operations had access to the registry, including those that consider potential foster parents or license child care facilities.

“There is no legal basis for Hawaii to allow its child care licensing agency to have access to unsubstantiated reports of child abuse and neglect,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote in September in one of a series of letters. Instead, the department wrote, “the state is required  to promptly expunge those records.”

The limits on use of the unconfirmed reports reflects the fact that they can sometimes be made out of malice, by an estranged spouse, for instance — or simply be mistaken.

Dept of Human Services .

The Hawaii Department of Human Services was ordered by the federal government to restrict its use of unconfirmed child abuse and neglect reports.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Earlier this month, the state submitted a corrective plan and is working on technological changes so that confirmed and unconfirmed reports are in separate databases. In the meantime, the department has blocked those who should not be seeing unconfirmed reports.

“No one, as far as we can tell, was ever denied a license or registration because of a not-confirmed report,” said Keopu Reelitz, spokeswoman for the department.

But officials may have used the unconfirmed reports to “have a conversation” with people being reviewed because they wanted to care for children, she said.

Reelitz said it’s “fairly normal” for DHS to have discussions with its federal partners about nuances in the law and for the federal government to order a “performance improvement plan” like this one.

“We’re coming from a place of trying to keep kids safe,” she said.

‘Why Would Any Parent Not Be Upset?’

Marilyn Yamamoto, an advocate for parents wrongfully accused of abuse, isn’t so sure that the mistake was harmless.

As part of its improper interpretation of the law, the state was sending letters to parents who were the subject of unconfirmed reports to tell them that, though the complaint was not substantiated, their names would still be placed on the child abuse registry.

“Everyone knows about the sex offender registry,” Yamamoto said. “Why would any parent not be upset to see their name is on a child abuse registry?”

Such parents would be likely to waste money hiring attorneys to try to get their names expunged, she said, adding she’s been involved in hundreds of cases involving accused parents since 2012.

The state’s misuse of the unconfirmed reports is all the more puzzling considering that, in testimony on a 2017 bill related to the registry, the department said they would be removed from the registry.

Pankaj Bhanot

Ige Administration

Federal law “requires reports where there is no finding of child abuse or neglect to be expunged from the central registry, so the report cannot be used for employment or background check purposes,” DHS Director Pankaj Bhanot wrote in support of House Bill 1099, which made adjustments to the registry.

Reelitz could not say how long the department has been allowing its various operations to see the unconfirmed reports, but believes it’s been standard practice for years. An outside contractor that does background checks on those who work with vulnerable populations had access to the unconfirmed reports, but was told not to use them.

DHS workers who clear potential foster parents also had access. They might have brought up the reports in discussions with applicants, but never blocked anyone solely on the basis of the unsubstantiated complaint, Reelitz said. The same was true for DHS workers who clear in-home child care providers.

State Asked Feds For Help

The issue of background checks has gotten attention recently with new federal requirements. Perhaps because of that focus, Reelitz said, DHS staff last summer started discussing the use of the unconfirmed reports and decided to ask the federal government to review how it was using them.

Around the same time, Yamamoto, the advocate, was asking DHS whether it had revised a letter that goes to parents who were the subject of unconfirmed reports. She wanted to see if the form letter reflected changes made by the 2017 law. After about a month, she got the form letter and saw that it continued to tell those parents that, though the complaint against them was unsubstantiated, their names would still go on the central registry.

Yamamoto complained to the Hawaii Office of the Ombudsman, which in November sent her a letter saying that it was unable to substantiate her complaint. She then asked the federal office that oversees child care to look into it.

In September, the office responded to DHS’s inquiry about unconfirmed reports with a letter saying federal law would not permit child care licensing workers to see them.

In November, apparently in response to Yamamoto’s complaint, the federal office said that it had learned that others also had access to the unconfirmed reports and ordered a “program improvement plan.”

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Injured Workers Still Searching For Relief Fri, 28 Dec 2018 10:01:20 +0000 Part of an ongoing series about Hawaii’s workers’ compensation system. A year ago, Jay Dela Pina spoke to a Civil Beat reporter about his struggles to get treatment after injuring his lower back working as a hospital custodian when he bent over to pick up a bucket full of solution and mop heads. Over the course of […]

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Part of an ongoing series about Hawaii’s workers’ compensation system.

A year ago, Jay Dela Pina spoke to a Civil Beat reporter about his struggles to get treatment after injuring his lower back working as a hospital custodian when he bent over to pick up a bucket full of solution and mop heads.

Over the course of several years, the workers’ comp carrier had blamed his injury on a pre-existing condition, and then, when that was discredited by a state hearing officer, denied his doctor’s plans to fix his back.

He’s still struggling.

Since Dela Pina first talked to Civil Beat, his insurer approved a doctor’s request to get an X-ray and MRI.  But then it denied a different type of MRI that the same doctor requested to determine whether he’d benefit from surgery. Dela Pina would have to get his lawyer to request a hearing at the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to try to overturn the denial.

In the meantime, his physical problems mount. Now his left side has started to hurt, perhaps because he’s been compensating for discomfort on the right. His leg sometimes gives way. A few weeks ago, he fell down some stairs to his carport and the pain got so bad he went to the emergency room.

“I just want my life back,” Dela Pina said. “I get jealous because people get to go to work. It hurts me to see my wife come back from work, and I’m home.”

Over the past year, Civil Beat described the plight of Dela Pina and many other injured workers in a series called “Waiting in Pain.” They talked about financial struggles, the frustration of living with injuries they believed could be fixed — and even homelessness, depression and attempted suicide.

One year later, many of them have seen little progress.

Jay Dela Pina holds his daughters dog named in his home located in Hilo, Hawaii. John Hill story on Workers comp.

Jay Dela Pina, who injured his back working as a hospital custodian, has had a serious of health setbacks and has been unable to get approval from his workers’ comp insurer for a type of MRI that his doctor requested.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In its 2018 session, the Hawaii Legislature failed to approve three bills that would have addressed problems identified in the Civil Beat series. One, for instance, would have required both sides in a dispute to agree on a doctor to examine the injured worker.

As a result, the system grinds on much as it has over the past few decades. Workers’ comp insurers pay hand-picked doctors to write reports that routinely deny that the injury occurred at work or that the worker needs treatment.

A significant number of these so-called independent medical exams, or IMEs, are later discounted, but it may take years. During that time, workers may be cut off with no income or treatment while they appeal the denials, often requiring the help of attorneys. Many decide to settle for far less than they might get rather than keep fighting.

“There has been some improvement in the system,” including faster processing of claims at the labor department, said Scott Miscovich, a Kaneohe physician who’s one of the few who willing to deal with the hassles of treating workers’ comp patients.

“But unfortunately,” he said, “the same select group of worker comp carriers continue to use the system against the patient.”

Trying Again In The Legislature

Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, chair of the House committee that deals with labor issues, says he’s committed to continuing to try to reform workers’ compensation.

“If people are stuck in this purgatory, how do we get them out?” he asked. “One of the reasons I pursue this year after year is that people are suffering.”

But rather than reviving the same proposals, Johanson is considering fresh approaches for the session that starts in January to get beyond the resistance he seems to encounter at each step.

“It’s forcing me to think outside the box,” he said.

Civil Beat’s investigation focused on the insurers’ use of IMEs, based on an analysis of almost 200 reports over seven years by three doctors hired frequently by insurance companies.

In nearly nine of 10 cases in which the IMEs were cited in disputes before the state Labor and Industrial Relations Appeals Board or appellate courts, the opinions of the three doctors were bad news for workers. They said the injury did not happen at work, for instance, or that it needed no further treatment.

Yet in almost a third of these cases, the labor board or appellate court discounted these IMEs or ruled that the insurer, relying at least in part on the doctors’ opinions, failed to produce enough evidence to block the claim or treatment. From 2014 to 2017, the rate was even higher – about half.

In essence, the numbers add up to this: many injured workers can overcome the results of an IME, but not without a long and taxing struggle during which they may be denied payments or treatment.

For more than a decade, the insurance industry has fought off a dozen bills in the Legislature to require both parties in a workers’ comp dispute to agree on an IME doctor.

As far back as 2000, a committee analysis of one such bill concluded that “every effort should be made to select a neutral examiner with a balanced approach that favors neither the insurer nor the claimant. Those examiners who have acquired a reputation for favoring one side or the other should not be selected.”

Insurers have consistently argued that such a move would only add another layer of bureaucracy. And it would take away their primary tool for making sure that treatment is warranted, they say.

But Civil Beat found that several other states have found a way to allow both parties to agree on a doctor. Some make the opinion of the agreed-upon doctor binding to avoid protracted litigation.

Yet another neutral IME bill in this year’s session went nowhere.

Two other workers’ comp bills made it much farther.

One would have compelled insurers to pay benefits for injured workers while the insurer investigated whether the claim was valid, rather than delaying payments until they were deemed legitimate. In practice, the insurance investigation can go on for months, during which the injured worker may get no benefits.

“This idea of ‘denied pending investigation’ basically destroys the whole no-fault idea,” Wayne Mukaida, a longtime workers’ comp attorney, told Civil Beat last year. “And that’s the start of unwarranted months and months of delay.”

The other bill that almost made it would have clarified that IME doctors owed the same duty of care to workers’ comp patients as to traditional patients. Some critics of the current system believed this would restrain IME doctors from writing reports tailored to the interests of the insurer.

Differing versions of each bill passed the House and Senate. They were then killed by lawmakers in conference committee, where the two chambers  try to resolve differences over legislation.

Despite its warnings about proposed legislation, the industry appears to be doing well. From 1986 to 2017, workers’ comp premiums paid by Hawaii employers have dropped from $8.91 per $100 of payroll to about $2. Hawaii used to be almost three times above the national median, but now is just slightly above it.

Still Waiting

Civil Beat contacted additional workers featured in the series to see how they were doing. They described how their struggles have continued, sometimes in ways that seem almost Kafkaesque.

Michael Makekau recounted in a 2017 story how doctors hired by his employer, Hawaii County, wrote that his respiratory ailments were not caused by mold in the Hilo landfill scale house where he worked.

Makekau countered the IME reports by paying for his own sampling of mold and hiring experts to analyze his medical records. Eventually, after Makekau declared bankruptcy and sold his house, the county admitted that he was injured on the job.

Michael Makekau walks near the old portable building he was sickened by mold from an airconditioner at the Hilo landfill. Portable building can be seen at right of photograph.

Michael Makekau continues fighting to get disability benefits and medical treatment for respiratory ailments that he says were caused working in a Hawaii County facility filled with mold.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Since that time, Makekau had a CT scan and a pulmonary function test, as recommended by an earlier IME. Then, the county sent him to a doctor to rate his level of permanent disability, which determines how much he will be paid to compensate for his impairments.

In August, that doctor said he didn’t think mold had caused the lung disease, just aggravated it, which mystified Makekau because that was not the issue he’d been asked to address.

“We kind of went backwards,” he said.

Even stranger was that the doctor wrote that Makekau had failed to get the CT scan and pulmonary function test. Since the workers’ comp carrier paid for the testing, he assumed someone would make sure the results got into the hands of the doctor lined up to examine him.

“It’s not my job to find out what that process is and who’s responsible,” he said.

He works two jobs, struggling to get through the day sometimes, and is hoping eventually to get the insurer to pay for comprehensive testing of his lungs in San Diego, perhaps as a prelude to a lung transplant that one doctor said could become necessary.

Daniel Junker, another worker profiled by Civil Beat, was working as a security guard in Kakaako in 2015 when a prowler slashed him with a box cutter in the upper chest and forearm and slammed him against a dumpster.

Daniel Junker shares documents, tons of paperwork inundated from his workers comp claim.

Daniel Junker’s insurer denied coverage for a complicated, $200,000 surgery and treatment.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

After an IME doctor attributed Junker’s chronic pain to earlier shoulder problems, his workers’ comp insurer cut off his payments and denied further medical care. But a state hearing officer sided with Junker, appearing to clear the way for treatment, including a complicated surgery on his axillary nerve that would have to be done by specialists in Massachusetts.

At the time the story was published, the insurer had denied a treatment plan from his doctor, citing the earlier IME report that had been discounted by the hearing officer.

Since then, the insurer paid for him to fly to Massachusetts for a consultation with the two shoulder specialists, who outlined the complicated surgery. Including stays in the hospital and a rehab facility, the cost would approach $200,000.

The insurer rejected it. Junker and his lawyer are appealing. “It’s like starting over,” he said.

The only thing that keeps him sane, he said, are his four cats. On a recent morning, one stole a cigarette from his pack and started rolling around on the floor with it.

“They’re more therapy for me than if I went one-on-one with a doctor,” he said.

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