Settling the bill

LIHUE — Legal costs and fees to defend County of Kauai officials in two lawsuits filed by county employees totaled a little more than half a million dollars before settlements were reached, according to documents obtained by The Garden Island.

All told, that brings the amount of county taxpayer money to resolve the two cases, filed by Kauai County Auditor Ernesto “Ernie” Pasion and Kauai Department of Water Project Manager Dustin Moises, to slightly less than $1 million.

“As far as the cases, they were complex cases — more so the Pasion case — so it’s going to come with that high price tag,” Kauai County Council Chair Mel Rapozo said. “The key really is to resolve these kind of issues early on and not get to litigation. Unfortunately, in this case, it required a lot of attorney time and resources, so I’m not really happy with the cost.” 

Defending the County of Kauai in the two cases amounted to $564,830.79 in legal fees and were costs on top of a combined $425,000 in settlements paid to Moises and Pasion. 

Moises, who accepted a $125,000 settlement from the County of Kauai, filed an age discrimination lawsuit in 2013 against former Department of Personnel Services Director Malcolm Fernandez, claiming he was told that he should not get a higher salary because of his age. He was later assigned to a principal project manager position with a reduction in pay, and then downgraded to a waterworks project manager.

Pasion, who accepted a $300,000 settlement, filed a whistleblower complaint that same year, claiming the County Council and Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. retaliated against him and his department after he reported potentially unlawful conduct to the council and law enforcement officials about a 2012 audit on county fuel costs.

Legal costs, including travel and time incurred for depositions, and attorney’s fees in Pasion’s case alone totaled $550,573.49 to have the Honolulu-based law firm of Kobayashi, Sugita and Goda defend the County of Kauai. 

Though the amount of hours worked on the case was not immediately available, the law firm was authorized to charge the county a minimum hourly rate of $60 an hour for the work of associates and other professional services, and a maximum rate of $275 an hour.

“In every situation in which the county is sued, the Office of the County Attorney evaluates the case and makes an initial determination of whether we should seek special counsel because the specific facts and circumstances indicate that it is a special matter necessitating such employment,” First Deputy County Attorney Stephen Hall said. “In regards to the Pasion case, the office, at that time, decided that special counsel was necessary and the council voted to so authorize.” 

But the amount of money spent on Pasion’s case alone, Rapozo said, could have been higher if it had gone to trial. 

“One of the reasons why the settlement was reached was to prevent more (costs),” he explained. “Had we gone to trial, I think special counsel estimated that it would have been well over the million dollar mark. At some point, you’ve got to cut your losses and do what’s best for the community, and that’s what was done.” 

Since Office of the County Attorney staff worked on Moises’ case, the $14,257.30 in legal costs incurred were related to compensated time and travel for legal purposes. 

“I am glad the case is settled and Mr. Moises will continue to serve the county because he is a very valuable employee and there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the Water Department,” Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura wrote in an email.

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