County called halt to '97 probe of Ka Loko
A former county engineer ordered a subordinate to stop investigating work at Ka Loko Reservoir
A former county engineer ordered a subordinate to stop investigating whether illegal work was being done at Ka Loko Reservoir in 1997, according to county documents obtained by the Star-Bulletin.
The subordinate, former county civil engineer John Buist Jr., was summoned to former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka's office. Also attending the meeting were former County Engineer Cesar Portugal and Wally Rezentes Sr., a senior aide to the mayor.
Buist kept written records of the meeting that indicate Portugal ordered him to stop investigating a complaint regarding grading violations by James Pflueger at Ka Loko Reservoir. Buist, who now has a Maui address, did not return a call seeking comment.
The area worked on was on the other side of the reservoir, which broke March 14, sending a torrent of water downhill that killed seven people.
Kusaka yesterday would say only that she "vaguely remembered this issue coming up," but could not remember the details of the discussion.
Buist's memo deals with an anonymous complaint that accused Pflueger of lopping off a 50-foot hill at Ka Loko Reservoir.
The site in question was located on the far side of the reservoir, an area that was illegally graded and led to a $12.5 million settlement that Pflueger reached with county, state and federal officials earlier this year.
Buist, by certified mail, sent Pflueger a notice of grading violation on Nov. 18, 1997, after Pflueger's men were observed doing the work at Ka Loko, and photos were taken. Records show Pflueger received the letter on Nov. 21.
Several days later, in the mayor's office, Buist wrote that he was told to stop all investigations and pass along all information regarding Pflueger to Portugal, whose daughter was working for Pflueger at the time.
He paraphrased Kusaka as saying that "she doesn't understand why people can't do as they pleased on these large parcels of land."
Records kept by Buist were cited in a 2002 county memo prompted by some questions from the county attorney's office. In that memo, Kusaka acknowledged that the 1997 meeting with Buist had led to a change in policy in the county engineering division to stop investigating anonymous complaints.
Kusaka said yesterday that she changed the policy because many residents "were just tattle-taling" and the "wild goose chases" involved wasted employee hours and led to nothing.
She said that investigations would not start "until we had a legitimate complaint that we could follow up on ... it did not only refer to Mr. Pflueger."
Kusaka also said she was not aware that Portugal's daughter, Yolanda Portugal-Cabral, had been working for Pflueger, but said Portugal "had a history (with Pflueger) for a long time."
Portugal-Cabral, an engineer, was working for Pflueger and was responsible for the grading permits at Ka Loko, according to Buist's memo. Portugal-Cabral owns Portugal Mapping and Surveying Co. of Lihue. Calls left at Portugal Surveying & Mapping Inc. and the elder Portugal's home were not returned.
Before working for the former mayor, Portugal did business with Pflueger, Kusaka said. The elder Portugal sold the business to his daughter when he went to work for the county.
According to a 2000 Star-Bulletin article, the Kauai Board of Ethics cleared Portugal of any conflict issues in regards to Pflueger.
Kusaka said she was an acquaintance of Pflueger's.
Attorney Richard Fried Jr., who represents the families of those who died in the Ka Loko dam breach, said he's now suing the county, as well as the state, C. Brewer and Co. and Kilauea Irrigation Co., charged with maintenance on the reservoir.
"They'd seen it with their own eyes," Fried said of the grading violations at Ka Loko. "And nothing happened for five years."