City taxpayers paying $2.8 Million to Whistleblower

Published: Jan. 23, 2012 at 10:19 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 24, 2012 at 1:25 AM HST
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Nancy Olipares
Nancy Olipares
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A woman who said she lost her job with the city for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing nearly ten years ago has been awarded a $2.8 million settlement by the Honolulu City Council.

In early 2008, a jury found the city wrongfully terminated Nancy Olipares from her job after she complained about what she claimed was wrongdoing in the administration of former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris.

"The biggest thing was hearing that the jury affirmed for me that I didn't do anything wrong," Olipares told reporters after the verdict in 2008.  Through her lawyer, David Simons, she declined an interview Monday.

In 2003, her contract was not renewed as head of the Oahu Workforce Investment Board, a federally-funded city agency that provides job training and other employment help.

Olipares said Michael Amii, then the director of the city's Department of Community Services, fired her in retaliation for reporting the misuse of federal funds in the program.

Among other things, Olipares accused Amii of wrongfully using government money for a trip.

"I really seriously thought that if you don't do anything wrong and you give it your best, it will work out OK in the end.  And it was hard when it didn't. But now it did so it was OK," Olipares said in 2008, after a circuit court jury found in her favor.

The jury awarded her more than $3 million in 2008, but the city appealed to the state's Intermediate Court of Appeals, where the case sat for a couple of years.

Simons, Olipares' attorney, told Hawaii News Now the two sides went to mediation this past summer and agreed on a settlement amount of $2.8 million, including back pay and general damages.  He said his client was actually owed $4.5 million, factoring in interest from the jury judgment in 2008.

On December 7, 2011, the City Council approved a plan of nine payments over seven years, so the city could budget for such a large settlement.

Olipares received her first payment of $260,000 on Dec. 15.  She will receive two more $260,000 payments April 15 and July 15.  And then the city will send her payments of $343,000 on July 15 of the next six years, according to a city council committee report.

"It just makes me sick," said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the council's budget committee.

"We don't have that kind of money.  We need our park restrooms repaired.  We need more police officers out there.  There have been a lot of fires.  We need more fire personnel.  I mean, there are lots of ways we could have used this money," Kobayashi said. "I think it's a mistake.  It's a lapse in the way we operate."

To put the cost of the $2.8 million settlement in perspective, it would cover the annual salary and benefits for 40 new police officers.

That same amount of money would pay for three public restrooms to be built at city parks.

Olipares left her $60,000-a-year city job to become a special education teacher, at a salary of $47,000, she told reporters in 2008.  She is still working as a special education teacher, Simons said.

In 2003, Amii, Olipares' boss who did not renew her contract, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor theft charge.  City prosecutors said Amii had one of his employees do political work for then-Mayor Harris on city time.  He was sentenced to one year of probation and paid about $500 in fines and restitution.

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