Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Kauai County

Air security hires
raise controversy
on Kauai

Former county officials were given jobs
even without experience

By Anthony Sommer

LIHUE >> Four members of former Kauai Mayor Maryanne Kusaka's administration, which left office Dec. 2, are now protecting airline passengers at Lihue Airport from terrorist attack.

Not one of them who took top management positions with the Lihue office of the new Transportation Security Administration has any experience in police work or security.

All of the former Kusaka employees are earning at least $20,000 more annually than they did working for the county. And one-fourth of their new income is a federal cost-of-living allowance, which is not subject to federal income tax.

The hirings have angered some people on Kauai not because of the pay, but because there was no competition for the jobs. There was no local announcement that the jobs existed or that applicants were being sought until they already were filled.

The criticism about the TSA hiring out-of-work county officials boiled up again last week. It was announced that Gini Kapali, who had been Kusaka's economic planning director and travel companion on the mayor's overseas tourism promotion trips, had taken a job last week as TSA's community support and quality improvement manager. Few people on Kauai knew the position existed or was available.

One of new Mayor Bryan Baptiste's first actions after taking office last week was to, in effect, abolish Kapali's job. Her duties as head of the Office of Economic Planning have been taken over by Gary Heu, Baptiste's administrative assistant, actually the deputy mayor.

The other three members of Kusaka's administration were hired by TSA in September and October. Most of the criticism over their selection, apparently with no competition, had died down until Kapali's new job was announced.

"It may not be illegal but there's something fishy going on," veteran activist Glenn Mickens said after hearing of Kapali's appointment. "Everyone I talk to says it should be investigated."

The sudden influx of a large number of highly paid federal employees at the tiny state airport has not gone unnoticed by state officials.

"They certainly have a large staff, don't they?" said Stan Sekimoto, the state airport manager at Lihue and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

Three of the four former county officials, including Kapali, held Cabinet-level jobs in the Kusaka administration.

Beth Tokioka was Kusaka's press secretary and worked for her for eight years. Her salary increased to about $80,000 at TSA from the $60,000 the county was paying her.

Her new title is TSA stakeholder liaison, and her duties involve coordinating the security efforts with the companies that do business at or with Lihue airport.

Even after she went to work at TSA, Tokioka remained an insider in Baptiste's mayoral campaign, helped pen the inauguration speech he delivered on Dec. 2 and remains part of his kitchen Cabinet.

Wally Rezentes Jr., Kusaka's finance director and son of her top assistant, now is the direct supervisor of the 45 screeners who check passengers both at the checkpoints and at the gates. He is a certified public accountant with no experience in security. Rezentes' salary went to $90,000 with TSA from $70,000 at the county.

The fourth hire was Curtis Shiramizu, a former deputy county attorney. He was not considered a member of Kusaka's inner circle. Shiramizu is in charge of regulatory affairs.

Critics have noted that both Kusaka and Baptiste are Republicans and that the TSA was created by Republican President Bush after Sept. 11, 2001.

The hiring decisions were made by Robert Schoonmaker, the new federal security director for Lihue Airport. Schoonmaker has made himself available to the press only once, on Oct. 22 when he announced security at Lihue Airport had been "federalized."

Schoonmaker introduced himself as a "federal law enforcement officer" with more than 20 years' experience. However, his job had nothing to do with security, counterterrorism or felony arrests. He worked for the U.S. Commerce Department making sure items being exported that required federal permits, mostly high-tech equipment, had the proper paperwork.

At that news conference, Schoonmaker said that because his agency had a congressional mandate to take over security at all airports by late 2002, he had considerable latitude in hiring his top assistants.

Schoonmaker came from California and said he knew no one on Kauai. But he said he "recruited" the members of the Kusaka administration he hired. He refused to say how he learned their names or whether anyone else had applied for the jobs.

All press inquiries to TSA are handed off to the agency's public information office in Washington, D.C. Since October that office has not responded to Star-Bulletin questions about the organization of TSA in Hawaii, job descriptions, salaries, texts and dates of the job announcements and the number of applicants for each position.

"No, the jobs weren't advertised in the local newspaper. They were advertised on a federal Web site,," TSA spokesman David Steigman said in October. "That's where all the federal job openings are posted."

When it was pointed out that few people on Kauai have heard of, Steigman replied, "Well, everyone in Washington reads it every day."

County of Kauai

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