Saturday, January 3, 2009

KPD Blue- Chapter 22 : Tail Guner Mel

KPD Blue

By Anthony Sommer

Chapter 22 : Tail Guner Mel

Even while the Ethics Board was stamping out evil on the Police Commission in late 2005, the Kauai County Council was ramping up for an all-out attack on Lum.

The leader, of course, was Councilman Mel Rapozo, the disgraced former KPD sergeant of Lap Dancing fame.

The first volley was a three-hour Council grilling of Lum in September 2005 over the fact his department expenses were running $300,000 over budget.

Even before the meeting, Council members all knew the problem was overtime pay because the KPD was perpetually below strength and officers frequently were called in on their days off to make up the shortfall.

The overtime shortfall wasn’t exactly a news flash. The situation had been going on for years before Lum became chief, due in great part to the refusal of two mayors to seek recruits from the mainland.

The Council members also knew that every other county department but one had run over budget the previous fiscal year.

It wasn’t much of a charge but it was the only thing they could even attempt to hang around Lum’s neck.

And it was a quick and easy way for the Council to kick off its witch hunt.

“I believe the overtime issue is out of control,” said Rapozo.

The fact is that a decade after the Lap Dancing Incident, Rapozo maintained very close ties with the middle management of KPD who had fought reform by Freitas and were fighting reform by Lum.

In Council meetings, Rapozo gave the impression (and many in the public believed it) that he wanted to modernize the KPD. In fact, he was working to keep it as provincial and backward as he could.

What happened next was a monumental leap by the County Council into the realm of McCarthyism.

In December 2005, the County Council voted unanimously to invoke its own investigative powers, which exist in the County Charter but never had been used in the history of Kauai County.

The Council gave itself subpoena power, the power to hire additional staff, and the power to conduct secret hearings.

Council members made it clear their targets were Chief Lum and the Police Commission.

Their action was a response to a complaint filed by the mysterious Lt. Scott Yagihara, the same officer who had filed the Ethics Board complaints against Ching and Furtado.

Yagihara has not testified under oath before any public body. He certainly hasn’t talked to the press.

On Jan. 31, 2006, Mayor Bryan Baptiste formally asked the Kauai Police Commission to fire Lum.

Baptiste’s reasons were lame:

“I have made numerous requests of Chief Lum to improve and increase communications with the Mayor’s Office but have seen no evidence of that happening,” Baptiste said in his letter to the Police Commission.

At least one of the requests from Baptiste (and Nakazawa) came at a meeting with Lum at which the mayor attempted to strong arm the police chief into filing a phony criminal charge to try to intimidate the author of this book.

Lum refused to file a bogus charge. So Baptiste asked the Police Commission to fire Lum.

Again, the impossibly vague wording of the County Charter doesn’t define “cause” for removing a police chief.

Baptiste’s call for firing Lum came less than a week after the police union had announced it had worked out its disagreements with Lum and was withdrawing its call for his removal.

“There was hope for the community to move this forward and right after that we get this letter from the mayor,” said Carole Furtado, who had become chairwoman of the Police Commission.

Furtado said that what the Police Commission needed to investigate were “the factions within the department,” a subject that repeatedly was swept under the rug.

Racism in the KPD remained a topic that no one on Kauai wanted to discuss, let alone investigate.

“We have had this issue, to my knowledge, for the last three or four chiefs, and it has not gotten any better,” Furtado said.

On Feb. 6, 2006, Lum filed his discrimination lawsuit in federal court.

Ten days later, responding to the request from Mayor Bryan Baptiste, the Kauai Police Commission voted to initiate a lengthy process to conduct its own investigation of Lum.

This was in addition to the investigative powers the County Council already had given itself.

In late March, Michael Ching resigned from the Police Commission.

Rapozo insisted, “There is no concerted effort by this Council to get rid of Ching or Lum.”

But his remarks rang hollow after he repeatedly had said Lum was not qualified and should not have been appointed chief.

Then, suddenly, both the Council and Police Commission inquisitions slammed to a halt at exactly the same time.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence but it certainly appeared the whole campaign to oust Lum was being orchestrated by the mayor.

There were growing indications Mayor Baptiste believed he could get rid of Lum before either the County Council or Police Commission investigations would start.

Baptiste had decided to use his pals on the Kauai County Ethics Board to remove his opponents on the Police Commission.

Baptiste would then appoint police commissioners who would do his bidding.

The year before, Carol Furtado’s appointment to a second term on the Police Commission was held up for months by the County Council.

When she finally received a (closed, of course) confirmation hearing, according to numerous sources, she was rubber-hosed by many of the Council members led by Mel Rapozo, who is Furtado’s cousin, and Council Member Sheylene Iseri-Carvalho, a former county prosecutor and close friend of Leon Gonsalves who had been an investigator for the County Prosecutor’s Office.

Furtado, who repeatedly has shown she has a backbone of steel, never flinched.

Finally, she was confirmed.

On May 3, 2006, the Ethics Board conducted its hearing on the ethics charge against Furtado, alleging she had made the selection process that resulted in Lum being named chief unfair.

Unlike Ching, however, Furtado had opposed Lum’s appointment as acting chief, which was the basis for the hearing officer’s finding against Ching.

Furtado later supported Lum for appointment as the permanent chief.

Furtado, who appeared without an attorney, waived her right to a closed hearing and accused the mayor, the County Council, Gonsalves and even the Board of Ethics of conspiring in a “smear campaign” against Lum.

Furtado conceded Lum was “not the popular choice” among the Hawaiian and Japanese middle managers on the KPD who, in turn, are well connected with several Council members.

But she was sharply critical of Baptiste using the Ethics Board to get rid of Lum by kicking Lum’s supporters off the Police Commission.

“They’re hunting Lum by trying to get rid of me. It’s not going to end here. It will continue. If I am cleared, they will find someone else,” she told the Ethics Board.

“They are looking for someone to crucify to get the end result, which is the removal of K.C. Lum,” she added.

Furtado remained on the Police Commission.

Meanwhile, the County Council in late May took up an Ethics Board finding that Deputy Chief Ron Venneman had violated ethics rules by helping circulate a petition to the Police Commission backing Lum as the best candidate for chief.

The petition was signed by 100 officers, about three-fourths of the department.

Venneman did not deny circulating the petition and said it was within his First Amendment rights to do so.

However, the Ethics Board’s hearing officer, again John McConnell, held Venneman had breached ethics rules by entering areas closed to the public to obtain signatures from police officers.

As he had ruled with Ching, McConnell did not find Venneman broke any laws.

Hawaii does not have a Little Hatch Act, which exists in many states. Like the federal Hatch Act, Little Hatch Acts prohibit public employees from engaging in politics.

In Hawaii, public employees engaging in politics is perfectly legal. What Venneman did was legal. But, once again, the mayor’s Ethics Board ruled he had violated the ethics rule prohibiting his use of a public position to benefit himself or others, a very broad interpretation.

The Council sent a recommendation to the Police Commission that Venneman be fined $1,000 and demoted. Venneman, as of this writing, is a lieutenant working in the Traffic Division.

Meanwhile, Baptiste—through his administrative assistant and chief hatchet man Gary Heu—had advised Lum that on June 8, 2006, Lum’s contract with the county would be terminated.

Not because of anything Lum had done.

But because the Ethics Board found that Mike Ching had violated the ethics rules—not the law—in supporting Lum’s appointment.

In the very convoluted reasoning of the Baptiste Administration, that allowed the mayor to terminate Lum’s contract.

Never mind that under the County Charter the police chief could only be hired and fired by the Police Commission.

Never mind that all of the other Police Commission members (except Gonsalves, of course) voted for Lum and their support had not been found to violate the Ethics Code.

The point was, as Lum later said, that Bryan Baptiste and the County Council have endless funds to hire lawyers to defend the most absurd legal theories.

Individual citizens, including police chiefs, have only limited resources to carry on court fights even if they are in the right and the government is in the wrong.

Lum retired as of June 7, 2006.

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