A former Maui County liquor control officer is alleging field supervisors overlooked violations and received free food, drinks and gifts from some liquor establishments they were charged with inspecting, according to a lawsuit against Maui County.
In the complaint filed Friday in 2nd Circuit Court, Justin Dobbs alleges that he faced retaliation in violation of the Hawaii Whistleblowers Protection Act because he made complaints about "illegal and unethical activities" in the county Department of Liquor Control and said he wanted to report the activities to the Maui Police Department.
Dobbs was fired in August 2011. He is seeking reinstatement to his job with seniority, back pay and benefits, as well as other unspecified damages, in the lawsuit filed by Honolulu attorney Venetia Carpenter-Asui.
In addition to the county, the lawsuit names as defendants Franklyn Silva, director of the Department of Liquor Control, and three other department employees. Two of the employees retired this year.
In a response Thursday, Deputy Corporation Counsel Richard B. Rost said: "The claims contained in Plaintiff Justin Dobbs' complaint are without merit. Plaintiff was terminated by the county for misconduct. Plaintiff's claim for unemployment benefits was rejected because plaintiff was terminated for cause. In addition, plaintiff abandoned his union grievance that sought reinstatement to his former job with the county.
"The county aggressively defends against frivolous lawsuits. The county is confident that it, and all the named defendants, will prevail," he said.
According to the lawsuit, Dobbs observed violations by liquor field supervisors at about a dozen bars and other establishments serving liquor, starting when he was hired as a liquor control officer trainee on Oct. 16, 2010, and continuing through April 16, 2011.
In one incident in December 2010, Dobbs reported entering the front door of a Waiehu business and seeing "what looked like underage females run to a room in the front of the establishment and close the door." Dobbs began walking to the room and was stopped by a liquor field supervisor who told Dobbs, "we do not regulate the back rooms because there is no liquor served there," according to the lawsuit. The supervisor prohibited Dobbs from investigating or entering the room, the complaint alleges, even though it is a violation for people under age 21 to be in liquor premises.
The owners or managers of the business delivered weekly gifts of food, including sushi rolls, pastries and doughnuts, to the Department of Liquor Control front office, according to the lawsuit.
In another incident in January 2011, the lawsuit alleges that a field supervisor "engaged in sexual contact with an intoxicated patron" in front of a Kihei restaurant and bar while Dobbs, three other trainees and another field supervisor were inspecting the premises.
The lawsuit also describes a July 2011 incident at a Wailuku bar where a liquor field supervisor ate and drank for free and allowed several hostesses to sit on his lap and sexually touch him while he was on duty, according to the lawsuit. Liquor commissioners were at the bar and also allowed hostesses to sit on their laps, the lawsuit alleges.
The bar's owners or managers also delivered weekly food gifts to the Department of Liquor Control, according to the lawsuit, which names five establishments providing such regular gifts of food. All department employees would eat the food gifts, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleges that liquor field supervisors ate and drank for free at some bars and restaurants, sometimes weekly, while on duty.
Most of the establishments named in the lawsuit are in Wailuku, with businesses in Kihei, Wailea and Lahaina also included.
Dobbs, a U.S. Army veteran and former deputy sheriff at the Yuba County Sheriff's Department in Marysville, Calif., moved with his wife and three children to Maui after being hired as a liquor control officer trainee.
He successfully completed a six-month probationary period on April 16, 2011, with a comment of "recognition of superior work" in his evaluation, according to the lawsuit.
After reporting the violations in late April, Dobbs was told by a field liquor supervisor, "This isn't the Mainland, these are gifts of aloha, go along with the program if you want to make it in this department," according to the lawsuit.
After the reporting, the lawsuit alleges that Dobbs faced retaliation including "counseling statements" falsely alleging he was performing deficiently, an attempt to revert his employment status from permanent to probationary, an investigation for an off-duty incident of alleged rudeness and a reprimand for allegedly not paying attention three months earlier during a class.
Director Silva ignored Dobbs' written complaint of retaliation, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleges additional retaliation after Dobbs was fired and the county appealed his eligibility for unemployment benefits.
Dobbs received a letter saying he was under investigation for workplace violence "for false allegations that were mischaracterizations taken out of context," then another letter informing him he was terminated from his job for the allegations, according to the lawsuit.
Three months after Dobbs was fired, a liquor field supervisor filed a police report alleging Dobbs was a suspect in damage to the supervisor's vehicle "without having a shred of evidence" that Dobbs was involved, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also says that Silva and the other three defendants each said they were worried that Dobbs "would become another Charles Bunch," referring to a former county liquor investigator who filed a 1994 whistleblower lawsuit against the county.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.