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Maui County trying to block AG interview related to 2018 wildfires

HONOLULU — County of Maui officials are trying to block the state Department of the Attorney General from questioning the head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency about what the county learned from the 2018 West Maui wildfires.

As part of the ongoing investigation into the Aug. 8 firestorm that killed 101 people, destroyed the heart of Lahaina and left thousands homeless, the state issued three subpoenas on May 29 to the current MEMA administrator, Amos Lonokailua-­Hewett; Darryl Takeda, MEMA’s community emergency response team manager; and Mahina Martin, Mayor Richard Bissen’s communications director on Aug. 8, 2023.

Martin was questioned by investigators a second time after new information emerged during the first phase of the state investigation, being conducted by the Fire Safety Research Institute. What that new information is and what prompted the brief second interview of Martin on June 7, will be covered in the second phase of findings.

“Mahina Martin and Darryl Takeda appeared for interviews pursuant to the subpoenas issued. The County of Maui filed a motion to quash the subpoena to Amos Lonokailua-Hewett and Lonokailua-Hewett did not appear for the June 7th interview,” Toni Schwartz, public Information officer for the Department of the Attorney General, told the Star-­Advertiser in a statement.

A judge will eventually determine if Lonokailua-­Hewett must submit to questioning.

The county’s position

In a June 6 motion filed by David J. Minkin, an attorney for McCorriston Miller Mukai MacKinnon LLP, the firm hired by the county, noted that the state amended its contract with FSRI from a ceiling of $1.5 million to $4 million on March 19.

The county is using a mix of attorneys with the Department of the Corporation Counsel and private contractors who have been aboard since October. The county’s legal tab is about $750,000 so far.

FSRI has interviewed “over 125 county personnel to complete its Phase 1 data collection.” Lonokailua-­Hewett is the only county official instructed not to testify by counsel.

“In contrast, (FSRI) interviewed just a few representatives from the state of Hawai‘i and zero representatives from Hawaiian Electric Company or its affiliates and/or any other named defendant,” Minkin wrote.

“The county informed the state AG that administrator Lonokailua-Hewett was not an employee of the county on August 7-8, 2023, and that he had no role in MEMA, or in the county, leading up to or during the fire incident. Administrator Lonokailua-­Hewett previously served in many capacities in the Maui Fire Department before retiring in 2019 as a battalion chief. He had not served in a county position until being appointed as the new administrator of MEMA on Dec. 29, 2023. Nevertheless, the state AG served administrator Lonokailua-Hewett on or about May 30, 2024, to appear to testify just eight days later on June 7, 2024,’” wrote Minkin.

“Though the state AG spent weeks framing this technical interview as a discussion about MEMA and the Emergency Operations Center, the subpoena instead sought to examine administrator Lonokailua-Hewett about the ‘conditions present during the 2018 Hurricane Lane fire incident on Maui, the emergency response to the incident, and any changes implemented by the County of Maui Department of Fire and Public Safety after the incident.’”

Looking at 2018 fire

County officials do not believe discussions about the 2018 wildfires in West Maui, that destroyed structures and prompted evacuations, is within the scope of FSRI’s contract to investigate.

County officials have previously refused to respond to Honolulu-Star-Advertiser questions about recommendations made in the aftermath of the 2018 West Maui fires.

Five years before the deadly Lahaina fire, in August 2018 a wildfire fueled by 70 mph gusts from Hurricane Lane swept across the Lahaina hillsides torching 2,000 acres, destroying 30 vehicles and 21 structures, most of them homes.

An after-action report about the 2018 fires was only made public following a public records request related to the Aug. 8 fires.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne E. Lopez told the Star-Advertiser in an interview that “all of the facts involving anything related to Maui County are the facts we received from Maui County.”

“If there are other facts that they are aware of we would hope that they would share those with us so that we are all working from the same set of facts,” Lopez said. “If we don’t have all of the facts … it is potentially going to skew their assessment … phase two … about what worked and what didn’t work. But more importantly, it could skew phase three, which is making recommendations to state and county government to make sure this never happens again. In my mind that’s the most important piece of all of this.”

In response to a question about whether FSRI was going to investigate the county’s findings from the 2018 fires, recommendations by wildfire management organizations, and other policies and warnings about the potential for a catastrophic fire in West Maui, Lopez cautioned that the FSRI probe and the AG’s work defending the more than 200 civil actions is separate.

Multiple investigations

Teams of deputy attorney generals are either working with FSRI or working on the litigation, with Lopez steering both efforts.

“If we go back and remember the purpose of this investigation, it’s to determine what actions the state and county took, when they took them and whether or not those actions worked, didn’t work or were completely unplanned for,” said Lopez.

“The idea is not to place blame and point fingers. The idea is to really, truly identify what changes need to be made so policymakers, the city councils and the Legislature … can figure out where the priorities need to be … as the state fights climate change and needs to mitigate the potential damages caused by climate change.”

Lopez noted that phase two of the state investigation is going to be an “analysis of those questions, what worked, what didn’t work, what should we have done differently, what could we have done differently, what could we have not done differently because there was just nothing that could be done.

“We want to make sure that we have all of the facts possible so those recommendations can be clear and complete and comprehensive,” she said.

The county, as of Wednesday, is defending 401 lawsuits involving 1,855 plaintiffs, 1,457 individuals and 398 business entities.

Three mediators — two retired California judges who worked complex litigation related to wildfires and a local mediator — are working through the reams of civil actions filed in connection with the fires.

Louis M. Meisinger and Daniel J. Buckley of Signature Resolutions, a private dispute resolution firm with offices in Los Angeles; Century City, Calif.;Boise, Idaho; and Atlanta are working the civil claims.

The local mediator is Keith W. Hunter, founder, president and CEO of Dispute Prevention &Resolution, Inc.

There have been two mediation sessions held in California so far. A third is scheduled for June 24 to 28.

Aug. 8 report

Bradford Ventura, chief of the Maui Department of Fire and Public Safety, told the Star-Advertiser that he understands the intense public interest into how and where the fatal Aug. 8 fires started.

At the end of the month, fire officials plan to meet with agents from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to finalize the cause and origin report.

“We understand that everyone is eager to hear the findings of this report. The task of going through all of the data was extremely arduous, and we are very grateful for the support from the ATF team,” said Ventura. “The goal is to focus on all of the details so that we can provide the most comprehensive cause and origin report to you all.”

ATF personnel will be flying to Maui later this month to present and brief their findings with Maui fire officials, said Jason R. Chudy, public information officer for the ATF’s Seattle Field Division.

This investigation is separate and apart from the litigation.
Source: The Garden Island

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