In confidential letter, former DLNR chair said some allegations against boating chief ‘substantiated’

HNN has uncovered new details on the investigation leading up to a $45,000 settlement involving the state’s boating chief, a female employee and allegations of
Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 5:28 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 6, 2023 at 8:11 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - HNN has uncovered new details on the investigation leading up to a $45,000 settlement involving the state’s boating chief, a female employee and allegations of sexual harassment.

As part of the settlement, the state and the accused denied all the claims and any wrongdoing.

But Hawaii News Now has viewed a confidential state letter, written by a top government official, that states some of the allegations *were substantiated.”

According to the lawsuit, in mid-2021 the female employee reported inappropriate conversations with Boating Division Administrator Ed Underwood.

After an investigation, then-state Land Chair Suzanne Case wrote a letter to the female employee surrounding the status of her accusations.

The December 2021 letter stated the following:

  • “the investigation substantiated some, but not all, of the conduct alleged in your complaint.”
  • “Mr. Underwood looked at your breasts when talking to you, possibly during conversations with you regarding your breast augmentation surgery.”
  • “Mr. Underwood used nicknames only for women, including you, in the DOBOR office. Certain nicknames were gender- and/or race-related.”
  • “Although it was not substantiated that you were uncomfortable discussing your breast augmentation survey with Mr. Underwood, it was substantiated that he inappropriately engaged in conversation with you about your breast augmentation on several occasions, including talking about his wife’s breast surgery.”

“I think the investigations prove that there was sexual harassment,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, William Sink.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit also claimed sexual assault and retaliation, which the letter did not address.

But Sink says his client told the truth and added what happened was not consensual.

The state Department of the Attorney General represented the DNLR and Underwood.

In a statement, Deputy Attorney General Miranda Steed said, “Mr. Underwood has always denied the allegations, and the settlement by its terms is not an admission of wrongdoing.”

Hawaii News Now shared the letter’s wording with state Sen. Angus McKelvey of Maui, who’s been very critical of the boating division, saying it’s been plagued with problems for years and that it needs regime change.

“I’m very disappointed and disgusted and the fact is we can’t tolerate this in the workplace anywhere,” said McKelvey. “We can’t have a culture like this,” he added.

Case’s letter also said Underwood could return to his office:

  • “Mr. Underwood has been notified that effective Dec. 27, 2021, he may physically return to his office, and resume his regular duties, including supervision of your position,” she wrote.

“We can’t lose site of the fact that the victim was injured, but as a policymakers it just re-emphasized the fact that DOBOR is a dumpster fire and there needs to be huge changes,” said McKelvey.

Hawaii News Now spoke with new DLNR Chair Dawn Chang on Thursday about the case.

She said she can’t talk about the matter because it’s a “personnel issue.”

She did tell lawmakers during her recent confirmation hearing there will be a “zero tolerance” policy in place. She’s talking to human resources about training and holding administrators accountable with evaluations.