Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Public safety director
nominee withdraws

3 neighbor isle officials join Lingle

By Richard Borreca and Rod Antone

Stephen Watarai, the only one of Gov. Linda Lingle's Cabinet nominees to face serious opposition, has withdrawn his nomination, saying he couldn't afford to retire from his position as assistant chief with the Honolulu Police Department.

State of Hawaii Watarai is the subject of a city investigation and has also raised the concern of state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, who as chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, would review his nomination as public safety director.

This morning Lingle named James L. Propotnick as interim director. Propotnick is a licensed private investigator who works on a contract basis for the Background Investigation Contract Service arm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lingle said.

Yesterday, Watarai said his withdrawal had nothing to do with the investigation.

"Absolutely not, that is absurd. What difference does that make if I stay at HPD or go over to the state? The investigation is still going to go forth either way," Watarai said.

Watarai estimates that he makes $93,000 with the police and would have made $85,000 as a state director.

Lingle did not comment on Watarai's action yesterday, but Bob Awana, her chief of staff, said she wished him well.

"Steve is an outstanding public servant, and we are disappointed that his family's economic future prevents him from taking this position," Awana said.

Watarai, 58, was named public safety director Dec. 23, after being recommended by a selection team headed by Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona.

The Public Safety Department is in charge of the state prisons, the sheriff's office and other law enforcement units.

Watarai has been on the police force for 38 years. An internal investigation is under way regarding a golf tournament he organized last May. The event at Hickam Air Force Base was part of last year's police week activities and was a benefit for the Honolulu Police Relief Association.

The HPD Internal Affairs Division has been looking into allegations that police officers were assigned to volunteer for the tournament, then told they would be paid for the following day, but did not have to show up for work.

Complaints about the event also prompted a city Ethics Commission investigation.

Late yesterday, Watarai said it was on Jan. 3, when he filed his retirement papers, that he discovered that "the numbers just didn't add up."

"I went over them myself and then with an accountant and I just wasn't satisfied," Watarai said.

"I was either going to retire and go with the state's job or transfer my HPD retirement over to the state ... but the numbers didn't work.

"I wanted to see what I could do to help the governor. I was willing to serve, but the system won't allow me."

Watarai said he had to consider his family's financial security.

"I'm just sorry that I wasted their (Lingle's) time and that I have to withdraw like this. It's just a big inconvenience for the governor to start looking for somebody this late," Watarai said.

Yesterday, Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli, Waianae) said she had concerns about the Watarai appointment because she knew Watarai from a meeting during a hotel workers' strike several years ago. Hanabusa, an attorney, was representing the union and Watarai was testifying before a federal judge about charges arising from the pickets.

"His attitude and positions were disconcerting and enough that I had concern if he would be the right person for a job with our prisons," Hanabusa said.

Also she said, there was no indication how the internal affairs investigation would be handled and what would happen if it were not resolved. Hanabusa did not say whether she would have voted to confirm Watarai.

Sen. Donna Kim (D, Kalihi Valley) said she also had concerns about Watarai's investigation, but added that she was inclined to vote for him because she said she thought Lingle should be able to pick her own Cabinet.

"She should be able to put together her own team, so I was not prepared to vote against him," Kim said.

Senate GOP leader Fred Hemmings said he had not been told by the Lingle administration that Watarai was withdrawing his name.

State of Hawaii

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