Kusaka: Politics had nothing to do with hiring decisions at Lihu’e Airport

LIHU’E – Current private-company security personnel working at Lihu’e Airport, unsuccessful applicants for federal Transportation Security Administration positions at the airport, and others remain frustrated about the hiring by TSA of several former appointees of former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka.

The hiring especially of four former Kusaka appointees without any previous security training or experience, to high-paying, TSA management positions at the airport, smacks of favoritism, political payoffs, and preferential treatment, several unsuccessful applicants and other citizens contend.

Kusaka can’t believe the controversy, she said in an exclusive telephone interview yesterday. Her appointees heard the jobs were coming, checked on the Internet to make sure they met minimum qualifications, applied and got hired, she said.

“I had nothing to do with getting them hired. I did not contact President Bush for such a matter,” she said. “I didn’t have only four people looking for jobs out of my administration,” Kusaka said.

“I think it’s really sad when people cannot be judged by their own merits. And those people that have been hired are extremely qualified,” she said.

“Let’s not degrade their abilities and qualifications by putting a political spin on it. That’s so far from the truth,” said Kusaka.

“I think they need to be judged on their own qualifications and their own merits. And they’re all good people,” she said of Wally Rezentes, Jr., former county finance director; Beth Tokioka, former county public information officer; Gini Kapali, former director of the county Office of Economic Development; and Curtis Shiramizu, former deputy county attorney.

All have been hired to TSA management positions at Lihu’e Airport.

“I think people forget it’s not only security jobs. They have to run an office. I mean, they need administrative-level people to run their business,” she said.

“I can’t believe it. It’s so small-minded,” she continued. “Our people were looking for jobs beyond the county, and good for them that they got a good job, a good-paying job. They meet the qualifications.

“I think it’s done fair and square,” Kusaka said. “Apparently they did (meet the qualifications), or they wouldn’t be hired. And there are many other people who applied for federal jobs who didn’t get hired,” she said.

“Why are we singling out people who happened to have come from a downed administration? I think that’s really poor politics. I think it’s sad,” Kusaka continued.

She has been following the news coverage generated by the hirings and U.S. Rep. Ed Case’s call for an investigation into TSA hiring practices at Lihu’e Airport.

Case (D, rural O’ahu and the Neighbor Islands) wrote a letter to a senior TSA official in Washington, D.C., saying he has been getting lots of inquiries from constituents with security and law-enforcement backgrounds who did not know about the availability of the management positions until after they were filled.

A TSA spokesperson in Washington, D.C. yesterday said the agency welcomes the Congressional inquiry, is proud of and confident in its advertising and hiring practices, and will promptly investigate any alleged favoritism.

“We feel very confident that we employed the best hiring practices possible, and advertised these positions appropriately,” said Brian Turmail, TSA spokesperson.

Case yesterday welcomed the prompt response, and said his initial request was “purely informational,” in response to inquiries and concerns from constituents that had not been answered.

“My letter was intended to ask questions and get answers. I didn’t pre-judge whether they did or didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “I simply asked the question. I’m just looking for an answer, that’s all.

“I think probably what happened was that the information, unfortunately, was not forthcoming here, so they left themselves a little bit in a situation where there was an appearance of something there that bothered people that wasn’t cleared up. And as a result, it just festered,” Case continued.

“I’m hoping it is easily resolved. If it turns out that the positions were fully advertised so that everybody that wanted a good shot at the positions had that good shot,” he’ll be satisfied.

“I have no reason to doubt the qualifications of the people selected,” Case said. “But, clearly, if it turns out that people that were fully qualified did not get a shot at the positions, and that’s certainly what a number of people are saying to me – ‘I would have applied had I known,’ and ‘I had good qualifications,’ and ‘Why did it happen that way?’ – then, hopefully, TSA will make it right,” said Case.

“So, from my perspective, it’s at this point an informational inquiry, and we’ll see where it goes depending on their response.

“But I appreciate the commitment to a prompt response,” he added.

Case, who has for several months has spent lots of time in Lihu’e Airport while traveling to and from Kaua’i campaigning for various statewide and national offices, said he felt something was bugging some of the airport employees he talked with there.

“This situation was bothering them, clearly.” When he started getting inquiries from other constituents, he decided to ask the questions of TSA.

“I today (Thursday) have had a number of calls from people on Kaua’i and elsewhere in the state that have said, ‘Yeah, this needs to be investigated,'” and some calls from Kaua’i in defense of the process, he said.

“These jobs are not secured particularly here,” Kusaka said. “My understanding is that all of the rsums are sent to Washington, and Washington makes the final decisions, and they are the ones that contact the fortunate recipients of those jobs,” she said.

“I don’t think that the director here is the one that necessarily chooses who gets the job. How do we know what party these people who were hired are from?” Kusaka asked.

“I think that’s really hitting below the belt, and shame on him,” she said of Case’s insinuations that Republican President Bush took care of Republican Mayor Kusaka’s appointees by giving them federal jobs.

Kusaka did not apply for a federal job, was not offered a federal job, did nothing to influence anyone in Washington to give her appointees federal positions, nor was she offered positions for her appointees, she said.

“Give me a break,” she said, when told of street speculation that the in-power Republican federal administration offered gifts of TSA positions to the outgoing Republican mayor’s appointees.

But community rage has not yet subsided.

“It’s just a dirty rotten deal they did,” said Lihu’e resident Gus Demos, 75, who has military and private security and airport experience and would have liked at least the opportunity to apply for one of the jobs given to former Kusaka appointees.

“What they did was wrong, wrong, wrong. I’d like to see them out of those jobs,” he said. “This is an injustice. People should be ashamed of what they pulled. “I’m looking for justice. I’m looking for equality,” said Demos.

The situation is also hard on many former Wackenhut Corporation employees who were displaced by TSA screeners. This week, another reduction in force was announced, paring the Wackenhut workers at Lihu’e Airport to just a select 15.

Those 15 have little job security, though, as plans are to eventually federalize nearly all security functions at Lihu’e and all the country’s airports.

Currently, at Lihu’e Airport, TSA employees man the main security checkpoint and boarding gates, screening passengers and carry-on baggage.

The remaining Wackenhut employees search checked baggage at ticket counters; enforce parking, loading and unloading regulations; and are posted near automatic doors to prevent security breaches.

Looming, though, is a Tuesday, Dec. 31 deadline for TSA to take over all passenger and baggage screening functions, something that may or may not happen by that date depending on training of TSA personnel in those functions, a Wackenhut supervisor said.

Jimmy Leong, operations manager for Wackenhut in Honolulu, said some Wackenhut employees will remain at Lihu’e Airport after the Dec. 31 deadline, checking passenger tickets and identification and serving in other security functions that don’t pertain to passengers or baggage.

Some of the current and former Wackenhut employees are bitter, saying they were given assurances that the TSA would train them so they could move into those federal jobs.

But Leong recalls a TSA official telling Wackenhut employees that if they qualified for assessments (testing) for the new TSA positions, took and passed the tests, they would be immediately offered TSA jobs.

Many of the Lihu’e Airport Wackenhut employees, and hundreds more outside of the company, did not pass federal tests.

Many of the new TSA hires came into their new jobs with little or no security experience, while the Wackenhut workers had been providing airport security for years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some of the Lihu’e Airport Wackenhut employees said.

“We have been doing a very good job keeping our people safe here, and travelers from around the world,” one current Wackenhut employee wrote in a letter given to The Garden Island.

That employee asked to remain anonymous, fearing termination or other retribution if his or her name appeared in the newspaper.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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