Embattled Public Safety director testifies at confirmation hearing

Updated: Apr. 4, 2019 at 3:19 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Embattled Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda addressed senators at his confirmation hearing Thursday, saying he’s proud of the progress he’s made at the head of a department that oversees the state’s correctional facilities and sheriff’s division.

Espinda took the microphone after more than an hour of testimony from his supporters and opponents. Testifiers included a number of current employees of the Public Safety Department.

Women’s Community Correctional Center warden Eric Tanaka called Espinda’s leadership “firm."

“I am in very strong support” of his reappointment, he told senators.

But opposition also bubbled up at the hearing, including negative testimony from a 28-year member of the state sheriff’s division. “If you believe that the division is under some type of strategic vision .... I posit to you that’s not correct," the employee said.

During his own opportunity to speak to senators, Espinda worked to paint a picture of himself as a leader who not only has a strategic vision, but one that’s working effectively.

He claimed that the amount of overtime paid out to correctional officers ― previously a frequent area of criticism when it came to Hawaii’s prison system ― had fallen for four consecutive years, amounting to a six-figure dollar reduction from when he was first appointed.

The number of furlough inmates who walked away from those programs last year was about a third of what it was five years ago, Espinda said. And the department has not been forced to cancel any regularly-scheduled prison visitations while he's held the post.

“Even though (the Oahu Community Correctional Center) has increased its visitation program from two days to seven days, there has not been a single visitation cancelled during my tenure. Not one," said Espinda. "That’s 100 percent turnaround.”

Senate Public Safety Committee Chairman Clarence Nishihara has already said he will not be recommending Espinda for the position. But it’s not yet clear how the full Senate vote on Espinda’s appointment will turn out.

Nishihara said Thursday that the committee will decide whether or not to recommend Espinda to the full Senate at a hearing on April 11 at 1:15 p.m.

Leading up to the confirmation hearing, Espinda’s strongest supporters sought to engage in last-minute — and questionable — tactics in a bid to save his job.

Espinda’s deputy director of corrections, Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, apparently even went as far as directing some department employees and others on where they should sit at the committee hearing in order to show senators considering Espinda’s nomination a united front.

Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, Department of Public Safety
Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, Department of Public Safety

In a series of text messages obtained by Hawaii News Now — which begin “Aloha All, It’s Jodie" — subordinates are asked to show their support for Espinda and are warned that if he’s not reappointed the department "stands a chance of having an outsider come in.”

The texts from Hirata’s phone orchestrate seating arrangements for Espinda’s hearing, and direct employees to get to the gathering at least an hour early. They even spell out where the governor’s chief of staff should sit: Right next to Espinda with the department’s wardens behind him.

In an especially questionable move, the messages also name two critics of the Public Safety director, urging supporters to keep them well away and “out of eye shot of boss.”

[Read more: Maui correctional officers say ‘public is not safe’ after large riot at jail]

Those two critics — Kat Brady and DeMont Conner — are both prison reform advocates.

Conner said the messages were downright bizarre.

Espinda’s confirmation hearing comes in wake of several high-profile incidents under his watch, including the escape and fatal shooting of an OCCC inmate and a large riot at Maui’s jail.

The department is also facing heat following HNN investigations that found misspending and poor management, including purchases of rifles that can’t be used because of longstanding policy.

The Public Safety Department oversees Hawaii’s correctional operations and sheriffs division.

Despite the problems, Gov. David Ige stood by Espinda on Wednesday, saying that he remains the right man for the job and that he’s been able to use the resources he has to make key changes.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, an online petition seeking support for Espinda was also raising eyebrows.

Hirata is listed as the author of the petition and sources say she was urging subordinates to sign it. Some say they felt intimidated and sighted it out of fear of retaliation if they didn’t.

Public Safety Department employee Keiron Pratt posted a negative comment on the online petition, and it mysteriously got deleted.

“This department will do anything and everything it can to keep the people in power who shouldn’t be in power,” Pratt said. “The morale of this department is the lowest it has been ... since 2002.”

After Hawaii News Now contacted the Public Safety Department about the petition and text messages, officials said they’d launched an internal investigation into Hirata’s actions.

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