State reaches settlement in civil lawsuit that accused embattled DLNR boating chief of sexual assault

Ed Underwood, the state administrator for the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, has faced criticism by some over the years.
Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 5:23 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 at 6:59 PM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A confidential settlement has been reached involving the state Land Department, its embattled boating division chief, and a female subordinate in a civil lawsuit that accuses the administrator of sexual assault and claims the DLNR was slow to act, Hawaii News Now has learned.

Ed Underwood, the state administrator for the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, has faced criticism by some over the years for his management style.

But he’s now facing much more serious allegations.

In a lawsuit filed in August, a female subordinate accused Underwood of sexual assault and harassment.

The allegations go back to 2017 and the lawsuit claims it started with a conversation about breast implant surgery and over time led to sexual assault.

The lawsuit said Underwood “started touching plaintiff’s private area on her clothes.”

It added that Underwood allegedly told the woman, “You must promise me that if things ever get ugly between the both of us, you will not say a word about this.”

The lawsuit also takes aim at DLNR, saying the agency “knew the plaintiff and other female employees were subject to the above sexual-harassment, assault, and batteries and other torts but failed to take prompt and reasonable, remedial action.”

Kekai Keahi, a community advocate, is demanding Underwood’s removal.

“Sexual harassment, it’s not a good thing,” said Keahi.

“You get to a point. Enough is enough. We gotta change what’s happening,” he added.

Both the attorney general and DLNR did not answer Hawaii News Now’s specific questions about Underwood’s employment status and whether he has faced disciplinary action.

However, both agencies issued statements.

Deputy Attorney General Miranda Steed said in a statement that:

“The plaintiff agreed that the settlement should not be construed as an admission of wrongdoing, and the defendants deny all claims and allegations. The parties settled the lawsuit for substantially less than what it would have cost for the State to defend the lawsuit and agreed on all terms to their mutual satisfaction.”

Meanwhile, the state Land Department issued this statement:

“DLNR is aware of the lawsuit that was mutually settled. As this matter relates to a personnel issue we can’t comment further. DLNR notes that a settlement is not indicative of an admission of liability but rather a mutual agreement for the benefit of all parties involved.”

Legal expert Megan Kau says these kinds of cases are complicated.

“It’s always difficult to make a flat-out determination of who’s right versus who’s wrong,” said Kau.

She added the taxpayer payout could be more in the future.

“The state is on notice that the defendant has a propensity or history of committing sexual harassment so if this happens again in the future, the state is going to have to pay out more than it paid out in this settlement,” she said.

Hawaii News Now reached out to Underwood about the settlement and he did not respond.

The settlement amount is confidential for now.

But once approved by the Legislature, the dollar amount will be public.