Public Safety chief appears headed for a fight at Legislature to keep his job

Published: Mar. 9, 2019 at 11:17 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The man in charge of Hawaii’s prison system and who oversees the state Sheriff Division may be in for a fight to keep his job.

Halfway through this year’s session, the Senate Public Safety Committee still hasn’t scheduled Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda’s confirmation hearing.

The committee chair said he first wants to hold hearings on the department’s management, while others want the agency audited.

Espinda oversees an agency that’s been involved in two fatal shootings so far this year.

Just last week, an inmate escaped from OCCC and was fatally shot by a corrections officer.

At a news conference following the shooting, Espinda said the escape was a “major mistake.”

But state Sen. Clarence Nishihara said the problems at the agency may be so “wide-ranging,” they might not be fixed by merely finding a new director.

“You have to look at those who he put in place in the organization if you really want to clean up," he said.

Sources said 11 senators oppose Espinda’s nomination and seven support it. Another seven are undecided.

“I think there are concerns," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Karl Rhoads. “I don’t think they’re all the same as mine but I have talked to people who are registering reservations about his nomination."

Espinda says he looks forward to the confirmation process, where such concerns are raised and discussed openly.

Lawmakers have nearly two months to decide his fate.

One issue that’s sure to come up: Recent promotions by Espinda.

Reid Ogata, for instance, was named first deputy Friday, making him the highest-ranking civil servant in the sheriffs division.

Ogata oversaw the Sheriff’s Capitol Patrol Section when Delmar Espejo was shot and killed last month after he allegedly attacked an officer.

Deputy sheriffs were also involved in a confrontation last October that ended with police killing a man.

Critics said Ogata’s promotion should have been put on hold until those probes are complete.

“The dispositions of those investigations are ongoing," Espinda said, in response. “However, Reid is not a target or under investigation. Those things are all checked prior to the promotional process."

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