Former Grand Naniloa GM sues hotel management company, executive

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald The Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo.

A former general manager of the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo is suing the hotel’s former management company and an executive who was his supervisor, claiming he was wrongfully forced to resign after uncovering and reporting internal theft and corrupt practices by employees.

Honolulu attorney Scott Kubota filed the suit July 20 in Hilo Circuit Court on behalf of Scott Fuchigami. Named as defendants are Aqua-Aston Hospitality LLC, Aqua Hospitality LLC and Susan Cowan, Aqua-Aston Hospitality’s vice president of operations.

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Fuchigami is seeking back wages, benefits, attorney fees and other costs under the state’s whistle-blower protection law and other unspecified damages.

“Right now, we’re not at a point where we can put out a number to the public. Hopefully, we’re going to be able to work this thing out. … He was a six-figure employee, so you can take it from that,” Kubota said.

The suit claims Fuchigami, then a general manager for Aqua-Aston’s Maui Banyan Hotel, was temporarily assigned by Cowan as general manager for the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo on Dec. 21, 2016, while Aqua Hospitality was managing the hotel under a contract with the hotel’s owner, Tower Development Inc.

According to the filing, Fuchigami discovered on Dec. 24, 2016, that $21,000 was missing from a hotel front office safe and reported the theft to his bosses and police. The suit claims the only person with access to the safe was a front office manager, unnamed in the document, who was suspended by Cowan three days earlier and later terminated, allegedly for providing free rooms to family and friends.

Neither the hotel management company nor the police investigated, and no charges were ever filed against the front office manager, the suit claims.

“He called the police saying, ‘Hey, there’s supposed to be $21,000 that’s missing here.’ Then he notified his manager, who was Susan Cowan. He was expecting to get interviewed by police. Well, from December to the time he was fired in June (2017), he was never interviewed by police,” Kubota said.

Police Capt. Randall Medeiros said a theft “of U.S. currency in excess of $20,000 was reported at a hotel on Banyan Drive” and “is being actively investigated by the Criminal Investigation Section.” Medeiros said he couldn’t provide any other details because the investigation is still active.

Other allegations in the suit include that a former housekeeping manager, identified in the suit as Kyle Joaquin, “falsified time records for several employees” including a University of Hawaii at Hilo basketball player and baseball player who allegedly clocked in, left shortly afterward and received full paychecks. The suit also alleges Joaquin put a rentable room “fraudulently … out of order” and used it as a “party room … for himself and select employees,” and “illegally provided free alcoholic beverages left behind in the guest rooms to these same employees” — including the UH-Hilo athletes, neither of whom were of legal drinking age at the time.

The athletes weren’t identified in the suit.

The Grand Naniloa Hotel is a sponsor of UH-Hilo Vulcan athletics, and the Vulcans’ website has a link on its top line to the hotel’s website. The Grand Naniloa is the only business with such a link.

The lawsuit further alleges Fuchigami’s bosses told Joaquin and others in housekeeping that he was the one who identified them, and they responded by falsely accusing Fuchigami of sexual discrimination and using a homophobic slur.

Aqua-Aston attempted to cover up the thefts, according to the suit, because it didn’t want to jeopardize its management contract with Tower Development. The suit claims Aqua-Aston ordered Fuchigami to stop investigating the thefts, removed him from the Grand Naniloa management position in May 2017, then effectively terminated him the following month.

“He was forced to resign. He was told by Susan Cowan, ‘If you don’t resign today, we’re going to fire you,’” Kubota said. “And, of course, that kind of blew him away. He thought, if anything, the guys who were doing all of the theft were going to be fired.

“Most of the evidence was given to Aqua because he thought they were going to do something major to these guys, because they were ripping off Tower — all these false time cards signed off by that housekeeping manager.”

Kubota said his client sued only after “trying to settle this matter with the former employer.”

“It took a long time before they retained local counsel, I’d say about five months. And then they said, ‘Nope. We’re not going to settle. So go ahead, sue us,’” Kubota said.

According to Kubota, Fuchigami is now managing a smaller timeshare operation on Oahu.

The Tribune-Herald reached out to Aqua-Aston and to Darin Leong, the Honolulu attorney identified by Kubota, for comment, but neither replied.

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“As we are not a party, and further were not involved in these details of this case, we don’t have sufficient information to comment,” said Tower Development CEO Ed Bushor in a text message. “We have retained a new management firm as of January 1, 2018, that is handling the day to day management of Grand Naniloa Doubletree by Hilton.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.