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3 key Hawaii state department leaders departing during pandemic

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                                Pankaj Bhanot


    Pankaj Bhanot

                                Scott Murakami


    Scott Murakami

The heads of the state departments of Tax, Human Services, and Labor and Industrial Relations have left Gov. David Ige’s administration just since July while Ige still has two years left in his final term.

The departures appear to be unrelated and all three openings have since been filled, at least temporarily.

While the changes could be a personnel anomaly over the course of Ige’s two terms, the three departments getting new leadership touch nearly all aspects of island life — especially during an uncertain future in the age of COVID-19.

“People start to leave an administration at the tail end of a second term,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki. “But this is an extraordinary time in the pandemic.”

In one of Ige’s major appointments of his second term, Clare Connors became Hawaii’s state Attorney General in January 2019.

The more recent departure of Human Services Director Pankaj Bhanot — effective Aug. 31 — is particularly disappointing to some lawmakers.

“Pankaj was one of the governor’s finest department heads,” said state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, (D, Kailua-Kaneohe). “It was comforting to have his steady leadership. So it was shocking to hear that he was departing. I wish him well.”

Bhanot cited health and family reasons for leaving the job he held since 2016.

Like Senate President Ron Kouchi, “Pankaj comes from Kauai,” Kouchi said. “I’ve known Pankaj for a long time and he’s got legitimate reasons for why he needs to take the course of action he did. He has left with great regret.”

Ige named deputy DHS director Cathy Betts to replace Bhanot as director, effective Sept. 1, pending Senate confirmation.

She has a law degree from the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law and a sociology degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and previously served as executive director for the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women; as a deputy Attorney General; as a law clerk in the First Circuit Court; as a community outreach worker/education coordinator for The Sex Abuse Treatment Center at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children; and as an attorney in private practice.

Betts has the initial support of Kouchi.

“I’ve encouraged her on a number of occasions to apply for vacancies,” he said.

But Keohokalole, chairman of the Senate Technology Committee, did not have the same feelings for acting Tax director Rona Suzuki. On the last day of the legislative session last month, Ige pulled her nomination for Senate confirmation to become the full-time tax director.

“My primary concern with her was some of the dialogue that she and I had about operation of the department’s IT system … especially after we had worked so hard over the last two, three years to put guard rails in place so we weren’t throwing away money like happened in the past,” Keohokalole said. “I did not have confidence that she was going to operate within the parameters that we so diligently set up. That’s my kuleana as technology chairman, but she did not have the votes to secure Senate confirmation.”

Then Scott Murakami resigned on Aug. 5 as director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations after being on leave since June 1.

“Scott was under a tremendous amount of stress and I felt that he deserved some time off,” Ige said in a statement. “He has decided to resign from his position, and I respect that.”

Kouchi said, “clearly the stress and strain for Scott Murakami speaks for itself. He has a young family.”

On Aug. 10, Ige named Anne E. Perreira-Eustaquio to replace Murakami as acting director for 60 days, or until the position is filled.

She was DLIR’s deputy director since Oct. 1, 2019, and spent her career at DLIR, including a stint as administrator of the unemployment insurance program, according to Ige’s office.

Also on Aug. 10, Ige named former state Rep. Isaac Choy to serve as interim tax director, pending Senate confirmation.

Choy served in the House from 2008 to 2018, is a licensed certified public accountant and once headed his own firm, Isaac W. Choy CPA, Inc.

“We live in interesting times, and my goal is to take on the role of tax collector fairly and firmly for the good of all,” Choy said in a statement. “Hawaii has a long history of people helping each other. I will rely on the deep character of our residents to help our state heal and recover. With the help of our hard‐working men and women of the tax department we will be a part of the solution.”

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