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Absent worker, alleged thief still got paid by the state

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State transportation officials' management of Lihue Airport is being questioned during a Senate hearing.

The state Department of Transportation overpaid a Lihue airport worker who stopped reporting to work $5,000 plus $2,200 for unused vacation, according to testimony during a Senate information briefing yesterday.

Another former employee of the Lihue airport was given about six weeks of paid leave after acknowledging she embezzled about $15,000, according to information disclosed during the meeting of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The briefing was part of an ongoing probe of the Airports Division of the state Department of Transportation.

State Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said yesterday that the unidentified person in the embezzling incident was temporarily put on paid leave as a matter of due process.

"You still have to go through an investigation, and you have to verify that wrongdoing is evident and had occurred," he said.

The individual in question should have been put on unpaid leave, said Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

"Someone who admits to stealing money from the state is put on leave with pay?" she asked. "What message does that send to people out there? That it’s OK to steal and that if you get found out, you get put on leave with pay for at least a month and a half?"

In a separate incident, an airport worker who "walked off the job" in December 2008 was overpaid about $5,000, airport officials said yesterday. That unidentified person was later rehired and allowed to keep the $5,000 and received vacation pay of about $2,200 under terms of a February settlement agreement discussed yesterday.

Deputy Transportation Director Francis Keeno said yesterday that a Kauai airport official involved in the rehiring was concerned in part with maintaining good relations with the Hawaii Government Employees Association. The department also was concerned about a potential lawsuit.

In hindsight the department would have done things differently, Morioka said.

"The bottom line is if we were to do this again with the same scenario, we would be looking at recouping the money," he said.

State officials would have made different decisions if their own money was at stake, Kim said.

"If it came out of your paycheck and your pay, then I wonder if you would have made the same deal," she said.

"I believe I would," Keeno responded to Kim.

Sen. Sam Slom, who attended the hearing, said, "It seems to me they could do a reality show on Kauai at the airport. It’s very frustrating."


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