EXCLUSIVE: Kulani warden on leave without pay; files grievance

EXCLUSIVE: Kulani warden on leave without pay; files grievance

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Department of Public Safety has placed Ruth Forbes, the warden at the recently re-opened Kulani prison on the Big Island, on unpaid leave in a personnel investigation, sources told Hawaii News Now.

It's extremely rare to remove one of the state's eight prison wardens as part of an investigation and her union has filed a grievance against the state, claiming Forbes is being treated unfairly, sources said.

Forbes has been warden of Kulani for more than a year and oversaw its reopening last July.

At the end of last month, sources said the state put her on leave without pay in an investigation into whether she created a "hostile work environment."

"We take these allegations, like all allegations, very seriously. But we also respect the warden's right, and any employee's right, to be of the presumption of innocence before we go forward," said Nolan Espinda, the governor's nominee as Public Safety director.

Espinda declined to go into detail about the charges against Forbes, because all personnel investigations must remain confidential until they are completed. Espinda would not confirm that she's on unpaid leave, saying only that she remains employed by the department.

Sources said Forbes, who just a few years ago was named the Public Safety Employee of the year, has filed a grievance through her union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME.

The union said the state failed to follow proper procedure when it did not give Forbes any specific list of charges against her at Kulani, and also failed to explain to her why her presence at the prison would jeopardize the investigation, sources said.

"We decide on any individual case, the action we're going to take, anywhere from placement at another job to removal, such was the case here," Espinda said, when asked about the decision to temporarily remove her from her position.

Forbes was not available for comment.

Sources said the union has asked for a list of other prison employees who were placed on leave without pay in the last five years.

In its grievance, AFSCME said Forbes is being treated unfairly.

For instance, the warden of the Kauai prison was never placed on paid or unpaid leave when two federal lawsuits last year accused him of forcing women inmates to watch violent pornography and confess their darkest sexual secrets to male prisoners.

Espinda said he has "fast-tracked" the investigation into Forbes at Kulani.

"It is ongoing at a feverish pace and without giving a specific time line, I certainly hope that we get something resolved for the people on the Big Island within the next three to four months," Espinda said.

After 30 days without pay, Forbes will go back on the payroll until the investigation is complete.

Some prison personnel investigations have dragged on for a year or more, with employees continuing to be paid all that time.

Unpaid leave is usually reserved for employees accused of serious wrongdoing, such as a prison guard who was arrested for drug dealing.

Calvin Mock, Kulani's chief of security, is serving as acting warden while the investigation is underway, a state Public Safety spokeswoman said.

Forbes was removed from her job by Shelley Nobriga, during Nobriga's brief, one-week tenure as deputy director of corrections in late January and early February.

Nobriga stepped down from her post because of potential ethics issues.  As deputy director, she reported to her former boyfriend and father of one of her children, Espinda, who now heads the department. In her post, Nobriga also oversaw her current partner, Scott Harrington, the current warden of Waiawa prison, who is the father of another of her children. Nobriga went back to her former position, handling legal matters for the department.

Espinda faces confirmation from the State Senate in the weeks ahead.

Some former and current employees have told State Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Senate public safety committee, that they plan to testify against Espinda, saying he lacks the management style to oversee the public safety department.

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