HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two employees fired by embattled Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi filed defamation lawsuits against her, County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, and the county on Wednesday.
"You can't treat people like dirt. It's just that simple," said Ted Hong, attorney for the two women during a news conference Thursday in his Hilo office. "Given the level of incompetence and arrogance by the county clerk and the chairman of the county council, we have had no choice but to file this lawsuit."
He filed the suits on behalf of Pat Nakamoto and Shyla Ayau. Nakamoto, a 25-year clerk's office employee, was election office administrator until Kawauchi fired her and three other employees in January 2012. Ayau was a senior elections clerk in the elections division of the clerk's office, where she had worked for more than seven years before being terminated.
Hong said their firing was based on the county's sloppy, biased investigation that claimed Nakamoto knew about alcohol being consumed and stored at a Hilo warehouse leased by the county to store election equipment and supplies.
Hong said the events were thank-you parties for election workers held in 2008 and 2010 and approved by previous county clerks at the warehouse site, which sits on private property.
He said a private investigator hired by the county, who has also been named in the suit, failed to contact previous county clerks who OK'd the "mahalo" potluck events to verify that elections employees had their permission to hold the events, which were longtime traditions.
Hong said both women suffered damage to their reputations because of what he called false accusations against them. In the lawsuit, Hong claimed "Kawauchi, Yagong and the investigators have leaked false and misleading information to the media" about his clients' terminations.
Ayau "felt so ashamed about what was going on in the media that she actually moved, she fled. She's now living on Kauai, taking a temporary, lower paying job," Hong added. Ayau now works at the Kauai County Clerk's office as a temporary elections clerk, he said.
Hong said he'll ask for more than $500,000 each in damages for Nakamoto and for Ayau in the lawsuit.
Hong told reporters the Hawaii County Council already turned down a proposal for $10,000 in damages for each employee, plus $10,000 in legal fees.
Hong said he also asked the council for "reinstatement of their jobs and an apology. And the council roundly rejected that proposal."
Yagong, who said he received the lawsuit Thursday morning, declined comment, citing standard practice for pending litigation. Kawauchi also declined comment Thursday afternoon.
Hong said Nakamoto successfully appealed her firing and when she went back to work in July, Kawauchi told her to return home on paid leave with no explanation.
Hong said if those experienced elections workers had been on the job during the August primary, delays at more than a dozen polling places would have been prevented.
"None of this would have happened, we would have had a smooth, flawless election," Hong said.
Nakamoto went for a medical check-up last week and Hong said,"She wanted to work but her physician has said given the level of stress and what she's experiencing, she shouldn't be working."
Thursday, the Hawaii County Council unanimously approved a resolution asking the Hawaii State Association of Counties to urge state lawmakers to have state elections officials monitor counties' readiness to conduct an election and to intervene if necessary. The proposal would have to be approved by the three other counties before it would be included in HSAC's package of proposals for next year's legislative session.
Before August's primary, Kawauchi alarmed election officials across the state by changing procedures, abruptly closing her office for one day and not returning calls of the state's chief elections officer for one week. Kawauchi also went to the Attorney General's office concerned about voter fraud over a small number of voters who voted twice in the last election, something other more experienced elections officials considered an overreaction to an incident she had not sought advice in handling.
Kawauchi, who was unanimously approved by the Hawaii County Council in late 2010, had never worked on an election before this year. Because of delays in opening 13 polling places in Hawaii County during last month's primary election, Gov. Neil Abercrombie ordered all of the island's 40 voting sites to remain open an extra hour and a half, delaying the statewide release of results in all races.
Kawauchi was unable to provide an accurate number of polling places that had problems election day until state elections officials found polling notebooks in her office days after the primary and conducted their own investigation into the difficulties.