Hawaii County prosecutor: Corruption rampant at state's boating division

Published: Apr. 10, 2017 at 8:58 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 10, 2017 at 8:59 PM HST
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HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - The agency charged with running Hawaii's small boat harbors blatantly mistreats and retaliates against residents who use the facilities, according to Hawaii County's prosecuting attorney.

Since he began looking into the issue nearly two years ago, Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth says he's received a deluge of fresh complaints about how boating officials are mistreating vessel owners – sometimes on a daily basis.

Some of those who claim to have been negatively impacted have called for the head of the boating division to resign.

But Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation administrator Ed Underwood claims he is the victim of a campaign designed to spread rumors and innuendos without evidence, even going so far as to file a complaint against the prosecutor.

Roth tells Hawaii News Now he got involved in the issue after hearing from a single boater in 2015. The complaint, he says, was just the tip of the iceberg.

"I checked into it, and sure enough, I was being told by DOCARE and DLNR officials that there was no retaliation in that agency, but just about everybody in the boating community had a complaint about retaliation, inconsistency, corruption, you name it," Roth said.

The case in question came to his attention after Keauhou resident Bill Murtagh claimed the boating division staff had altered his son's application for a mooring, in order to make his boat appear smaller.

"The size of the vessel that my son had listed, it was crossed out and there was a different length in there," said Murtagh.

Roth discovered it was too late to investigate the case as a crime, because of the statute of limitations, but also said Murtagh was subjected to a retaliatory audit by boating officials.

"There's corruption at the Division of Boating in many different ways," Murtagh told Hawaii News Now. "The ways I'm aware is preferential treatment to select individuals. There's retaliation for being vocal for standing up against the division." 

Roth claims that he, too, was the target of a retaliation attempt when Underwood filed an ethics complaint against him after Roth testified during a hearing about Murtagh's case.

In his complaint, Underwood wrote: "Mr. Roth came to these conclusions based on hearsay and innuendo. At no time did Mr. Roth present any evidence to substantiate his claims that I had acted in a retaliatory manner."

Underwood's complaint didn't sit well with the prosecutor.

"Mr. Underwood, in true to form, retaliated against me in the only way that he could," Roth said. "He filed an ethics complaint. The ethics board found that I didn't do anything wrong."

Underwood and other DLNR authorities declined to be interviewed for this story, but agency spokesman Dan Dennison provided the following statement:

The (state) Ethics Commission finding triggered an internal personnel investigation into this matter. Apart from this specific matter, DLNR has also requested an independent investigation by the Department of the Attorney General regarding all complaints or concerns involving the Hawaii Island DOBOR district. DLNR took immediate action once it became aware of a potential ethics violation and Chair (Suzanne) Case and DLNR leadership remain committed to ensuring all staff abide by State ethics guidelines.

A spokesperson with the state Attorney General's office told Hawaii News Now that office typically does not discuss investigations and refused to confirm whether they were conducting one into this issue.

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