Fired Kulani warden sues state, others

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The fired former warden of Kulani Correctional Facility is suing the state Department of Public Safety, claiming she was wrongfully terminated from the position.

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The fired former warden of Kulani Correctional Facility is suing the state Department of Public Safety, claiming she was wrongfully terminated from the position.

The lawsuit was filed Nov. 15 in Hilo Circuit Court by attorney Ted Hong on behalf of Ruth Forbes. In addition to DPS, it names the department’s director, Nolan Espinda, and three of Forbes’ former subordinates, Robert Castro, Gordlynn Ann Dias and Samantha Bechert, plus numerous “Doe” defendants.

Forbes, who was chosen as warden for the July 1, 2014, reopening of the previously shuttered minimum-security prison on the slopes of Mauna Loa southwest of Hilo, is appealing a denial of an administrative claim before the state Merit Appeals Board. Her hearing is scheduled to continue Jan. 27 in Honolulu. Hong said he filed the suit to preserve his client’s claims because of a statute of limitations deadline.

Claims in the complaint include gender discrimination and denial of training and assistance by DPS, berating of Forbes’ qualifications in the presence of other DPS personnel by Espinda and former director Ted Sakai, defamation by Castro, Dias and Bechert, and improperly placing Forbes on unpaid leave during an investigation. The suit seeks reinstatement, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and court costs.

“We want her job back,” Hong said Friday. “She was doing a good job there. … She’s done something within six months that has never been done in the history of the department, which is to restart a correctional facility and get it back up, operational to accept inmates. … And doing that with a skeleton crew, by the way. Instead of recognizing her for her achievement, they used these bogus charges to terminate her.”

According to the suit, “disgruntled employees” wrongfully accused Forbes of theft, ethics code violations, sexual harassment and working while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and claimed Castro, Dias and Bechert made video and audio recordings of Forbes “on multiple occasions, seeing to exploit (her) emotional vulnerability of going through a divorce, to have her terminated.”

The suit claims that Castro, a former guard, resigned in December 2014, and in his resignation letter and a subsequent letter accused Forbes “of threatening him, harassing him and creating a hostile work environment.” The suit claims Castro “knew those allegations … were false and used it as a pretext to cover up his incompetence and poor work performance.”

It also claims DPS initiated the investigation based on “Castro’s false charges.”

The suit also claims Dias, a former adult corrections supervisor at Kulani, was allowed to resign “under questionable circumstances” after being caught on video passing a love letter she’d written to an inmate. It further alleges Dias resented Forbes for having that inmate removed from the prison’s administrative office and ordering he not be allowed to return there.

According to the filing, DPS and Espinda “knew of these false allegations” but investigated Forbes anyway, and that Espinda “intentionally and deliberately turned a blind eye towards the manufactured evidence against the plaintiff and used any and all means to terminate her.”

The suit claims Forbes shouldn’t have been put on unpaid leave. It alleges Neil Wagatsuma, warden at Kauai Community Correctional Center, was allowed to continue working during an internal investigation and two federal lawsuits brought by inmates.

Hong called DPS “the most dysfunctional department in the state of Hawaii.” He referred to Wagatsuma and the cases of a former Maui corrections officer charged with sexually assaulting a woman inmate and another guard under investigation after allegedly assaulting three women at the Women’s Community Correctional Center on Oahu.

“This is a very troubled department,” Hong said. “My client … wants to go back because if you look at the course of her career, this is what she’s been trained for and what she can do. She started as a temporary (adult corrections officer) and has climbed the ladder to the position of warden.

“It’s not a question of whether she can do the job. She can do it. It’s not a question of whether she enjoyed the job. She did. It’s a matter of whether or not people are going to create unfair and discriminatory barriers for her, as a woman, to do the job.

“If we’re successful and she can go back to the job, this will be another lesson you learn by the department to start treating its people better, especially women.”

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DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the department, which doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation, hasn’t been served with the suit.

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

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