(Star Advertiser) HART employees to be questioned in federal probe

(Source: Honolulu Star Advertiser)

The agency overseeing construction of the city’s $9.2 billion rail system already was slammed with three federal subpoenas for records, and now several employees have been served subpoenas and asked to meet with federal investigators about possible wrongdoing and irregularities.

Andrew Robbins, executive director and chief executive officer for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, on Wednesday confirmed that “a few” HART employees have been served with subpoenas asking that they meet with federal authorities for questioning.

The employees have not been asked to appear in a courtroom, Robbins said. “My understanding is it’s for interviews,” he said.

Robbins declined to identify the employees, which section of the authority they work in or even how many were contacted, stating that he wants to respect their privacy. He said that he, personally, was not among those served.

The employees have approached the Department of Corporation Counsel, the city’s chief civil law arm, about receiving legal representation from that office or a city-paid private attorney. Under city law, employees are entitled to legal representation as needed on issues dealing with actions taken during the scope of their duties as city employees.

If Corporation Counsel believes it must represent the interests of the city as a whole and that those interests may conflict with those of an employee, it typically will recommend the Honolulu City Council approval funding to hire a private law firm for the worker.

HART, as an agency, received three subpoenas for records from federal investigators in February tied to potential wrongdoing involving the project, whose price tag skyrocketed to $9.2 billion from $5.3 billion.

The first subpoena sought tens of thousands of documents in connection with the East Kapolei-to-Ala Moana rail line. Those documents dealt with the initial stages of the project. The second subpoena sought information on the the project’s relocation program, from which an internal review found overpayments to owners or tenants. The third subpoena calls for the minutes from HART board of directors meetings from 2011 through 2018, including those of discussions that took place in executive sessions closed to the public. State Auditor Les Kondo had earlier sought the same records and was rebuffed by the agency.

Councilman Ron Menor, chairman of the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that the City Council had not yet received requests to pay for the legal fees of HART employees subject to questioning by federal officials.

Menor and several other Council members have already voiced displeasure that the Corporation Counsel’s budget is being tapped to deal with HART’s legal issues. The committee last month was asked by Acting Corporation Counsel Paul Aoki to authorize funding for a special deputy corporation counsel to represent HART in its dealings tied to the subpoenas.

Menor said his committee did not take action because he and several colleagues preferred HART tap into a $44 million subsidy that the Council approved in June 2018.

“I would have a difficult time providing additional city monies for HART to respond to the federal investigation which our constituents would strongly oppose, especially sinceit relates to potential wrongdoing by former HART and city officials,” he said.

“It would be helpful for (the employees) to be advised by (Corporation Counsel) or a special deputy because they could be asked about matters that relate to agency business or matters,” he said. “But again, who pays for outside counsel? That is the issue that Council needs to resolved.”

At its monthly meeting in Kapolei Hale Wednesday, the Council voted to shelve a resolution that would have led to the dissolution of HART. Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson last month introduced Resolution 19-170, asking that Oahu voters in the 2020 general election be asked to dissolve HART and transfer its duties to the city Department of Transportation Services, an agency directly under the control of the mayor. Such an arrangement would make the project more accountable to the mayor and the Council, and ultimately the voters, he said.

Anderson said he’s been frustrated by a lack of communication between HART and the Council, noting that Robbins and a board member delivered a key document to the Federal Transit Administration without ever having asked Council members to join them.

Robbins testified Wednesday that he would work on improving communications with Council members.

Anderson’s resolution was met with opposition from HART’s board, represented by Chairman Damien Kim, former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, state Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), and a number of construction labor unions who all said they worry shifting responsibility in mid-stream would cause additional problems for the project.

Among the concerns raised were uncertainty for potential bidders of a public-private partnership for the project, and the potential for jeopardizing federal and state funding for the project.

City Managing Director Roy Amemiya said the Caldwell administration had no formal position on the resolution. However, he said, the Council should proceed cautiously “and not make the situation worse.”

Anderson said he and his staff will work on drafting a new resolution. “to put into writing some of the agreements, Mr. Robbins, that should be understood between this Council and HART.”

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