The state Ethics Commission made no conclusions as to whether or not a deputy director of the state Department of Public Safety violated state law after sending her subordinates emails and text messages soliciting their support for Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda’s reconfirmation to his position in April.

But while there were no clear ethics violations for Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, the deputy director of corrections at DPS who sent the messages, several employees reported feeling coerced, the commission said in a guidance letter issued Tuesday.

Director Public Safety Nolan Espinda walks into hearing room.
Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda walks into a Senate hearing room where his reconfirmation was considered in April. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In April, Maesaka-Hirata sent emails to subordinates with instructions for the first day of Espinda’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee, including meeting times, seating arrangements to pack the hearing room and instructions to prison and jail wardens to dress in business attire without their uniforms.

The emails also singled out Kat Brady and DeMont Connor, two advocates for criminal justice reform and critics of Espinda, saying they needed to be kept “out of eye shot of boss.”

“You believed you were asking (rather than directing) your subordinates for support,” Ethics Commission Director Dan Gluck wrote in a letter Tuesday, adding that several subordinates did not feel coerced by the messages.

“On the other hand, several recipients of these text and e-mail messages interpreted them as directives from a supervisor and, as a result, felt pressure to comply.”

Gluck wrote in the letter that Hawaii’s Fair Treatment Law doesn’t prohibit state employees from soliciting support for nominees. It’s common to see employees of state departments submitting written testimony to the Legislature in support of gubernatorial nominations.

“Although state employees may solicit others to provide testimony on a nominee, they should be very cautious in doing so because of the potential for abuse – especially where, as here, a supervisor is soliciting subordinates,” Gluck wrote.

In the emails to DPS employees, Maesaka-Hirata said that the appointment of an outsider instead of Espinda could be detrimental to the department.

The commission won’t pursue any penalties for Maesaka-Hirata, but noted that she may be subject to discipline for any internal violations DPS might find.

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