Committee Unanimously Supports Removal of Don Guzman as Prosecuting AttorneyNovember 7, 2020, 12:17 AM HST · Updated November 7, 2:40 AM Wendy Osher · 11 Comments
A unanimous 9-0 vote was cast on Friday supporting the Mayor’s request to remove Maui County Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman amid allegations of workplace violence.
The vote was taken after two days of deliberation before the Council’s Governance Ethics and Transparency Committee.
Mayor Michael Victorino released a statement following the vote to affirm his recommendation saying, “I had high hopes for Mr. Guzman, but the complaint against him was independently and thoroughly investigated, and I appreciate the County Council’s unanimous affirmation of my recommendation for removal. I wish Mr. Guzman and his family all the best in the future.”
Mayor Victorino submitted correspondence on Oct. 21, seeking Guzman’s removal. Eight days later, the Department of the Corporation Counsel submitted a proposed resolution to disapprove the removal.
“I respect his work as an attorney and a former government official,” said Committee Chair Mike Molina, “but in life, sometimes we have to separate the personal side and the business side of things. Of equal importance here though, is the comfort level of our county employees. Everyone should be made to feel safe in one’s work, and not having to fear anything. So in weighing all of that members, the chair’s recommendation is for the adoption of the revised proposed resolution entitled ‘Approving the removal of prosecuting attorney Donald S. Guzman.'”
“This is not an easy decision, but something we have to do,” said Council Chair Alice Lee.
Maui Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura offered comment during deliberations saying, “I just want the community to know that violence in the workplace is not permitted in the County of Maui and I stand by the protection of our employees. I’m glad to hear that the Mayor is instituting maybe more training or some improvements that he mentioned this afternoon.”
Guzman noted that at one point demotion was offered as a potential way forward, but ultimately he was faced with choosing either resignation or potential removal. “I chose to go with removal because I feel that the council is my due process–that you would be a fair body,” said Guzman during Friday’s deliberations.
Prior to the vote, Guzman testified saying, “This has been a very difficult time in my life. I’ve had the opportunity to at least reflect that I’ve been on administrative leave for one month; and I’ve been praying a lot to our Heavenly Father for his guidance. And I see that things in my own life need to be changed.”
According to Guzman, he did in fact enroll in a 10-week sensitivity training session. “I’ve completed three already on my own accord, and also I paid for. I have the fourth one coming up this Friday. Regardless of what you decide, members, I will continue to finish that; and I truly believe that it will make me a better person, and be a more rounded human being in the eyes of God.”
On Friday, committee vice chair, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said, “Testifiers yesterday pointed out so many examples of violence in the workplace… Mahalo to everyone who came out to testify. That exhibited tremendous courage in putting themselves at risk for themselves and for others–to stand up for each other and to hold all of us as leaders accountable.”
According to testimony, allegations included: “Yelling, swearing, demeaning comments, threats and physical actions that have created intimidation and fear.” One testifier described the alleged actions, as a “pattern of abusive and violent behavior,” while other allegations surfaced of “inappropriate discussions with employees.”
A list of employees testified against Guzman on Thursday including legislative analyst Jo Gascon, Susan Clements an administrative officer for the department, Andrew Martin second deputy prosecutor and Leslee Matthews a deputy prosecuting attorney.
Jo Gascon, a 23-year employee at the prosecutors office detailed allegations dating back to 2015, alleging use of “abusive language and intimidation” by Guzman. She described a particular encounter, pointing to a meeting with then-councilmember Don Guzman, a few co-workers and herself.
“When I asked a question he didn’t want to answer, he stood up with his chair with such force that the chair slammed against the wall, slammed both of his hands on his desk, glared at me and threatened me,” said Gascon. “It was so intimidating that one of my co-workers started to cry.”
According to Gascon, she filed a formal complaint that was followed by an interview investigation. “Not long after, I called to find out what the status (was), and learned the investigation was forwarded to the Managing Director’s office. I waited for months and left messages to follow up, but no-one ever called back,” she said.
Guzman said he was not aware that office employees other than Matthews would make statements regarding incidents that had occurred, since the complaint referenced in a termination letter identified a specific complaint brought by Matthews.
“I feel that my due process as an employee was not met and I was denied by due process. With the Mayor taking action on this matter, hand delivering a termination letter–and that was when I read it in the termination letter, that in this matter, the complainant was Lesley Mattews. It was specific in the termination letter,” said Guzman.
“In that letter, the grounds for the termination alleged and indicated these certain situations that are accounted for within that termination letter. And so, I felt and believed that this was about that specific incident. In addressing the other issues, I want to first say I apologize and am very empathetic to the employees that testified,” said Guzman.
Matthews said that while she believes that Guzman was “well intentioned,” she alleged that, “he has a mean, vindictive side that is full of rage.”
Describing the work environment under his leadership as one of “hostility and uncontrollable rage,” she further testified, “I expect to encounter abusers in my role as Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. I do not expect to encounter abusers where I go to work.”
She expressed concerns about COVID-19 response saying her concerns were met with a “threatening email” to watch how she responds. Matthews claims she was “publicly humiliated in an email to the entire department.”
According to Matthews, her concerns were genuine, and she noted that she eventually had to quarantine for two weeks because she had been exposed to individuals who had tested positive.
“My purpose in sending the email is we were not trying to cause a panic. We genuinely were panicked. We genuinely were concerned for our health and safety. When my colleagues found out that we did have a positive case of COVID, they cried. We have people in our office that are parents–that are in the sandwich generation–that are parents and taking care of their own parents,” said Matthews.
When she returned to work, Matthews said she requested an in-person meeting with Guzman. In her words, she described allegations of violence. “I tried desperately to end the meeting and tried to remind him that it was me, a supporter; but he continued, growing increasingly more angry and went into a violent rage. I was terrified. I immediately got up,” she said.
“I never thought that by me saying and opening myself up and saying I am concerned for my health and safety, that it would be, ‘watch how you respond to me.’ And then it would go from zero to 50 in such a brief time,” said Matthews.
In addition to current work in the prosecutors office, Matthews said she worked with Guzman when he was on the county council and she was in council services, characterizing her interactions with Guzman prior to this incident as “an excellent relationship,” saying she “sat front-and-center” when the mayor announced his selection of Guzman as Maui Prosecuting Attorney.
“I had such high admiration for him,” said Matthews. “And that is why, when I was meeting with him, in a meeting that I called, I was like, ‘Don, it’s Leslee… it’s me.’ Because it was just… he was just so full of rage, slamming his hands on the table, yelling at me. I’m like, it’s me. It’s me. I said maybe we need to wait because nothing I’m saying is getting through. I said I could understand if this was somebody that had animosity towards you, but I said ‘Don, it’s me.'”
Testimony in support of Guzman described him as having a “strong reputation for being professional and fair and competent.” One testifier criticized the process saying much of the discussion should be handled by Human Resources and personnel procedures.
“Testimony from coworkers should be a matter of a record on an HR file,” one testifier said. “I’ve never seen a scenario where fellow employees discuss these things like a kangaroo court.”
While a number of testifiers expressed concerns over the complaints being aired publicly, attorney William Sloper said, “I think this is up to you folks to decide to have this be in public where both Mr. Guzman has waived any confidentiality and it seems like the folks that have made the underlying complaints against Mr. Guzman have also testified frankly in front of everybody. So if they had any right to any confidentiality, they have also waived. So I would strongly ask that you not go into executive session, and you finish this hearing in the public. This is the transparency committee, and as such I would hope that you take that very seriously.”
Mark Simonds, a longtime prosecuting attorney with the County suggested intermediate employment sanctions as an alternative to termination, citing examples that could include suspension, pay cut, counseling services, or more human resource services. He expressed a sentiment to “not throw out the good with the bad.”
“I’ve known him to be one of the most ethical people I know,” said Sydney Smith, co-facilitator fo the Agriculture Working Group during testimony in support of Guzman. “After he was newly elected to council, he was assigned to then-called the EAR committee…he met with us weekly and taught us how to write ordinances and most of all listen to our concerns. Two years ago I testified in support of him becoming our County Prosecutor because I knew he would apply the same ethical standards I saw him exhibit every time we worked on tough issues that faced our ag community.”
Smith continued saying, “I trust his judgement and I know that whatever decisions he made in his capacity as prosecutor were in the best interest of Maui County. His compassion for victims of crime and the families of those incarcerated within our community are second-to-none. I urge you to keep him in this position and let him continue his vision of making Maui County Prosecutors office the best it can be.”
In response to committee questioning, Guzman identified health issues that he was dealing with. “I am diabetic and sometimes people see me eating late in the afternoon and I forget to eat. I had been recently, this last spring, was diagnosed with neuropathy in my legs, so I had nerve damage. So I was on medication as well–not that that’s an excuse, but I was having health issues,” he said.
Second deputy prosecuting attorney, Andrew Martin said he was aware of friction between Guzman and the Mayor and assertion by supporters that this was an isolated incident committed under stress. He offered testimony in the hopes that council members would not be “distracted by those claims.”
Martin said he confronted Guzman “on multiple occasions since January and early February of this year,” in order to address what he called “improper conduct,” saying he was aware of “at least half a dozen such instances.”
“On one such occasion, I had been summoned from my office along with Mr. Rivera, who I was in a meeting with, by a panicked employee who indicated that Mr. Guzman was ‘fighting’ with a senior deputy in his office,” said Martin. “Yet another incident, I have witnessed him berate and yell at two female staff members because they could not connect him on a conference call. In that particular incidence, I had to remove one of the staff members from the area because she was outside the small office we were utilizing in tears,” said Martin. He further testified that the remaining staff worker’s hand “was shaking so badly, she could not dial the phone.”
During testimony, Guzman said, “In order for me to better myself, and be a better person, and a child of God, I really believe that I can change this and become the person that some of the employees feel that I have not been the proper boss to them.”
He noted that he did file a self-evaluation form reflecting the improvements and performance of the department as a whole. While the evaluation focused on the department, one question was focused on personal performance.
“This has been one of the most gut-wrenching processes I’ve ever been through as a council member,” said committee chair Molina. In the moments before taking the vote, Molina said, “No one is perfect in this world, we all have our shortcomings in different areas, but again, on the business side of things, the action that we’re about to take, in my opinion, will serve as an affirmation that zero tolerance–we take it seriously, and will not tolerate any violence in the workplace.”
While the vote was unanimous, Councilmember Riki Hokama noted that his vote was in support of the revised motion ‘with reservations.’
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