[ OUR OPINION ]
State should investigate
COST overruns for construction of the $45 million Central Oahu Regional Park have prompted investigations into the city's handling of the project, but the city consultant who went public about alleged wrongdoing was suspended and then let go. Hawaii's new attorney general, Mark Bennett, should investigate what appears to be the city's retaliation against a courageous whistle-blower.
THE ISSUEThe city has hired a private investigator to look into the suspension of a consultant who exposed millions of dollars in cost overruns on a park project.
Time magazine named Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins -- "three women of ordinary demeanor but exceptional guts and sense" -- as 2002's persons of the year for their actions exposing wrongdoing at their workplaces. Watkins told a congressional committee about improper accounting at Enron, where she was vice president; Cooper exposed a cover-up of losses at her company, WorldCom; and FBI agent Rowley told about her agency's failings before 9/11.
During what the magazine dubbed "the Year of the Whistleblower," local engineer Kelly Saunders, under city contract as a project manager at the Department of Design and Construction, made allegations of fraud and waste in the Waipahu park project last June to a KITV-4 reporter. Saunders was removed from her position and suspended after her complaints within the agency were ignored. Her contract with the city expired later in the summer.
Saunders alleged that the city and its consultant, SSFM International Inc., had mismanaged the Waipahu sports complex, which opened in July 2001. Michael Matsumoto, SSFM's chief executive officer, was charged last month with laundering thousands of dollars in political contributions and making donations under false names to Mayor Harris' campaign.
SSFM has been linked to $100,000 in alleged illegal contributions to the Harris campaign. The company's nonbid consulting contract for the Waipahu project had escalated from $932,000 to $3.2 million because of cost overruns.
City Corporation Counsel David Arakawa claims to have been conducting an investigation of the controversy, and Saunders has cooperated, according to her attorney, Thomas Grande. Arakawa hired Matt Levi, a former television news reporter who now heads a private investigative agency, to aid his office's effort. Levi interviewed Saunders, but she says Levi told her he was looking into personnel issues, not contracting improprieties.
"I kind of got the idea that this was slanted against me," Saunders told the Star-Bulletin's Rick Daysog. "It doesn't seem like they're concerned about investigating the project." Levi declined to comment to Daysog.
Arakawa, a Harris appointee, has an obvious conflict of interest in investigating allegations of impropriety regarding SSFM or possible related retaliation against Saunders. If Arakawa refuses to refer the inquiry to the attorney general's office, Bennett should order an investigation on his own of possible violation of the state Whistleblower Protection Act.
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