EXCLUSIVE: Wrongful termination lawsuit claims illegal, unethical acts by federal contractor

EXCLUSIVE: Wrongful termination lawsuit claims illegal, unethical acts by federal contractor
Published: Sep. 2, 2013 at 9:05 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 24, 2013 at 6:39 PM HST
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David Simons
David Simons

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The fired chief financial officer of a Honolulu tug and water taxi company has filed a whistleblower and wrongful termination lawsuit, claiming she was let go after raising questions about unethical and illegal practices involving disability fraud and improper donations to members of Hawaii's congressional delegation.

Hawaii Resource Group and several of its related tugboat and water taxi companies hold millions of dollars worth of non-bid federal contracts. One of the companies runs supply boats to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for the Fish and Wildlife Service, a contract worth roughly $4 million a year.

Last November, the companies fired Sharon Amano as their controller and financial officer, a position she held for seven years. On Friday, her lawyer, David Simons, filed a wrongful termination and whistle blower lawsuit.

"It's clear that her firing was the result of her raising whistleblower concerns throughout her tenure," Simons said.

The lawsuit claimed company officials curried favor with the offices of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and then-U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie for years to help win those non-bid contracts through congressional earmarks. A photo on the company's web site shows Hawaii's Congressional delegation in front of one of the company's boats, which is named after retired U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka.

Another boat is named for Abercrombie and a third tug is called the Kaimana Hila, which is the Hawaiian name for Diamond Head. Also a popular Hawaiian song, Kamaina Hila was one of Inouye's favorite Hawaiian songs which was performed at his funeral services at the National Cathedral in December 2012.

The lawsuit claimed to get around the ban on corporations giving money directly to members of Congress, relatives of one of the owners were given company funds to donate to Abercrombie and Inouye.

"They would cut company checks to Charlie's daughter and wife, in return which they would then write campaign contribution checks to politicians," Simons said.

Messages left by phone and in person by Hawaii News Now at the offices of Hawaii Resource Group were not returned Monday.  Hawaii News Now also left messages at the office and home of the company's attorney, Lynne Toyofuku, but did not receive a response. A phone message left at the Kailua home of Edward Morris, one of the company's owners, was also not returned.

The lawsuit also alleged that a welder who built some of the companies' tugboats was collecting full disability benefits from the federal government. Amano claimed she raised questions because she alleged the company laundered his salary through his wife.

"She was just told he was a friend of Charlie's. (Charles Pires, one of the owners)  And not to worry about it," Simons said.  "And so she did.  And they cut the checks to the wife for years."

Simons said when Amano suspected the company needed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in general excise taxes that it was not paying. She set up a meeting with a tax expert to get an opinion, but company officials canceled that meeting and fired her two months later, Simons said.

"Seeking justice for Ms. Amano for having been fired as a whistle blower and to let the public know that there are some things here that perhaps should be looked into," Simons added.

The companies are 51-percent owned by a Native Hawaiian nonprofit so they are eligible for those lucrative non-bid contracts from the federal government with no competition and no prior advertisement.

The lawsuit claimed that nonprofit was established by the part-Hawaiian daughter of one of the owners, alleging she has no operational control over the companies but performs "clerical functions" at the direction of her father and his business partner.

Amano, who declined an on-camera interview, said her bosses told her she was being fired because of a Small Business Administration audit, a claim she called "a total falsehood."

"I was terminated because I was bringing up all this kind of stuff.  I was wrongfully discharged for doing the right thing," Amano told Hawaii News Now by phone. "After a while, I believe that they were just tired of me raising these questions.  I was a thorn in their side. They didn't want to hear it."

HRG also has a sole-source, non-bid federal contract to provide program management software to the Veteran's Administration with annual revenues of about $4 million a year, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit names HRG, and its related companies, including P & R Water Taxi, P & M Marine Services, Pier 36, LLC and two of the companies' owners, Charles Pires and Edward Morris.