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Whistleblower files suit against county

Worker says he was fired after reporting water contamination

A former Department of Water Supply employee has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the county for what he alleges is “unlawful termination” in “retaliation” for reporting contamination of the Makawao water system last year.

In addition to naming Maui County as a defendant, Ashley Hooks’ suit filed in 2nd Circuit Court on Feb. 5 also names Water Director Jeffrey Pearson and Mayor Michael Victorino as defendants.

Hooks, a water treatment operator for the county’s Department of Water Supply, was terminated on or about July 10, about three days after the Water Department was sent a violation letter from the state Department of Health regarding the contamination.

Nearly a month before his termination, Hooks had informed the Department of Health’s Safe Drinking Water Branch about a May 16 incident in which a filter-cleaning solution had contaminated the water supply. Hooks said that employees of the Water Department were afraid of “retribution by their supervisors based on past incidents of retaliation.”

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said in an email Wednesday that the county does not comment on pending litigation.

“However, Maui County’s Department of Water Supply does comply with all state and federal laws regarding water operations and water quality,” Perry wrote.

Hooks was unavailable for comment Friday, but his Honolulu-based attorney, Andrew Stewart of Showa Law Office, called the case “pretty cut and dry.”

“This is the type of behavior the law is supposed to regulate, especially (when) a government employer is trying to silence an employee, especially when it is something that concerns the public,” Stewart said Friday.

He added that there are not only health concerns but also issues of government transparency.

Stewart said other employees took the issue up the chain of command, but they were told to be quiet. The employees then went to Hooks for help, he said.

“As his attorney, of course accountability is important. As his advocate, you know, the immediate thing is to get his job back so he has a livelihood,” Stewart said.

He added that Hooks had been employed with the Water Department for seven years. Hooks had also sought help from the United Public Workers union to get his job back.

UPW spokesman William “Kahele” Naeole Jr. said Friday afternoon via email that there is an active grievance on Hooks’ behalf and that the UPW does not comment on pending grievances.

Hooks’ lawsuit says that after he emailed Jennifer Nikaido at the DOH’s Safe Drinking Water Branch on June 17 to inform her of the incident, she responded on July 8 that “the Safe Drinking Water Branch has investigated the operation of the Kamole Water Treatment Facility on May 16, 2020 and determined that an uncertain amount of citric acid entered the Clearwell and caused a turbidity spike at the Kamole Water Treatment Facility.”

Nikaido’s statement, according to the lawsuit, added that “a violation letter was issued to the County of Maui, Department of Water Supply on July 7, 2020, which required public notification within 30 days to all Makawao water system customers and further corrective actions to prevent a repeat of the events.”

In July, the Water Department distributed a letter informing customers that the Makawao Water System had failed to provide the appropriate level of treatment in May 2020.

According to the lawsuit, the letter noted that the water had elevated levels of turbidity that were caused by a small amount of filter-cleaning solution inadvertently entering the system.

Hooks is seeking damages including costs of the lawsuit, attorneys fees, all costs of the investigation as well as reinstatement of his employment to his former position.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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