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Council committee votes to recommend Guzman’s removal

Investigation and testimony illuminates workplace violence

A Maui County Council committee voted unanimously Friday to recommend removing Don Guzman as prosecuting attorney after several of his employees came forward to testify on his alleged pattern of abuse toward staff. Located in the Old Wailuku Courthouse, the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney for the County of Maui rests in the shadow of Kalana O Maui, the Maui County Building on Friday. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A Maui County Council committee voted unanimously Friday to recommend the removal of Don Guzman as prosecuting attorney, after an independent report and hours of county employee testimony said the leader violated the county’s violence in the workplace policy.

Before the vote, Council Member Kelly King said the action was one of the most “gut-wrenching things” the council has had to do, and several other council members spoke of their friendships with Guzman, who held the council’s Kahului residency seat from 2013 to 2018.

Still, the Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee agreed on taking a strong stance against workplace violence.

“This kind of behavior cannot happen anywhere, and we are responsible when it happens in the county,” King said.

Five county employees testified Thursday about a “pattern” of abuse, detailing situations of Guzman’s rage, yelling, swearing, demeaning comments, threats and physical actions, with incidents dating back to 2015. Six incidents occurred in the department this year. They said that other employees were afraid to testify for fear of retaliation.

Kristi O’Heron, a Honolulu-based attorney hired to conduct an independent investigation of violence in the workplace complaints against Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman, speaks to the committee on Friday. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Andrew Martin, second deputy prosecutor and circuit court supervisor at the department, and others said they had cautioned Guzman about his behavior but that it has continued.

“During our meetings, he has repeatedly minimized or justified his conduct and says that his passion just gets the best of him,” Martin said Thursday. “I have reminded him that it is not his passion that gets the best of him but his anger that gets the worst of him.”

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Leslee Matthews’ complaint triggered the investigation after a recent incident involving a COVID-19-related safety plan email exchange and angry confrontation with Guzman. Two other complainants were in the investigation but wanted to remain confidential.

Kristi O’Heron, a Honolulu-based Marr Jones & Wang attorney who was hired by the county to conduct the independent investigation, concluded in the report that “threats of intimidation, to inflict mental harm or injury, and/or were actions that would seriously harm, disturb or continually bother Ms. Matthews and therefore violated the county’s violence in the workplace policy.”

When questioned by council members about whether she has any biases, O’Heron said she must remain neutral to preserve the integrity of her investigation.

Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman addresses the Maui County Council’s Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee on Friday. The committee voted unanimously to recommend his removal after violence in the workplace complaints. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“I have no alliances for various reasons,” she said Friday. “One, I’m an attorney governed by ethical obligations; two, I wouldn’t get hired again as an investigator if I always sided a certain way; three, no one asked me to make any findings; the fourth thing I would like to add . . . the complainant would be inclined to say the county did nothing wrong because the county is paying you, but I think my findings here are different because I’m saying, ‘Hey this can create some really serious issues for the county.’ So I actually made a different finding.”

Guzman was appointed by the mayor to head the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney in March 2019 after an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2018.

He responded to claims Thursday by saying he is seeking rehabilitation. Guzman detailed a high-stress role exacerbated under COVID-19 pandemic duress, personal health issues and friction with the mayor.

“My husband is a very kind person, but when provoked by people who want to take advantage of others or want to be above the law, he will fight back, but never in a violent way,” Guzman’s wife, Rose, testified Thursday. “He can raise his voice, but we all do that, because it is a natural emotional human response. Who has not raised their voice in their lifetime?”

Guzman was placed on administrative leave in mid-September and Mayor Michael Victorino submitted a resolution in October for his removal.

Under the Maui County Charter, the prosecuting attorney may be removed by the mayor with the approval of the County Council.

Corporation Counsel and county personnel officials said at-will, non-civil service, non-represented employees, such as Guzman’s position, may be terminated “at any time for any reason or no reason” as long as discriminatory rules are not violated.

Victorino said Friday that he met with the managing director and deputy managing director to review the facts and statements from the report. He met with Guzman twice and on the second meeting gave him three options: resignation, removal or demotion to deputy to work out of the Mayor’s Office on special projects.

Guzman and Victorino said that Guzman chose the route of removal, which would leave the decision in the council’s hands.

Victorino said Friday that the process has been a “wake-up call for everyone, including myself.”

“I need to do better as your mayor,” he said. “And as leaders of this community we all need to do better. What I’ve seen and heard is the incredible impact that our words and actions have on others. Violence does not need to be physical. Workforce violence and harassment has no place in the workforce. And as your mayor and leader of this county, I need to set a better example.”

Guzman, testifiers and council members during the process have pointed to Victorino, alleging that his behavior is similar to Guzman’s.

“I do not say my issues are the same as Mr. Guzman,” Victorino said in response to a question from King. “I have challenges like all of us in this room. . . . I will do my best to set a better example, as I stated earlier.”

Matthews said Thursday that the current situation is about Guzman — not the mayor. She said she would like to send a message to people that “abuse in any form against women is not OK.”

“I would find it very difficult, myself going into court, I’m assigned to family court to deal with victims and abusers of domestic violence, and saying I have to hold you responsible, but our chief law enforcement officer, we do not have to hold you responsible,” she said. “What a hypocrite I would be.”

The decision by the committee on Friday must be finalized by the full council.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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