Blowing the Whistle on HART
From Grassroot Institute, June 1, 2018
It’s difficult to protect workplace whistleblowers if intimidation is present in the very place where they would blow their proverbial whistles.
But that is what appears to be happening at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), which has been undergoing an audit on behalf of the Hawaii state Legislature.
In stunning testimony at the HART board of directors meeting on Thursday, State Auditor Les Kondo revealed that HART employees were being forced to record their interviews with his office, then give those recordings to management to be transcribed.
As Kondo pointed out, his office isn’t gathering information for a lawsuit or criminal proceedings. It was asked by the State Legislature to report on the procedures, process and policies of HART and determine whether they’re adequate. But having HART employees record their interviews with the auditor for review by HART managers undermines his ability to gather information.
As Kondo told the HART directors:
“In my opinion, that is akin to management sitting in the interview itself. Big Brother is there, Big Brother is listening, and whether intended or not, the implication, in my opinion, to the employees is that they better toe the company line.”
Kondo made it clear that he considered the recording policy to be, “interference” with the audit.
He added, “It is frankly, unprecedented as we do audits that we have management or attorneys involved in these interviews.”
I’d go a step further. Not only is it interference; it comes perilously close to violating Hawaii’s whistleblower law — in spirit, if not by the letter.
Hawaii’s whistleblower protections extend to employees who are, “requested by a public body to participate in an investigation, hearing, or inquiry held by that public body.”
In other words, they would absolutely apply to a HART employee who wanted to reveal concerns about HART to the State Auditor.
But the recording policy prevents employees from speaking freely. It is a preemptive move that discourages not only whistleblowing, but any honest employee feedback. HART is intimidating its employees by letting them know that management is always listening. Who could be expected to speak freely to the auditor under such conditions?
For more than a year, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has been urging an independent forensic audit of HART for waste, fraud and abuse. The agency’s approach to the state audit only underlines how badly needed that independent audit still is.
State policymakers were concerned about how HART was managing its funds, some of which are coming from the state. Now we know they should also be concerned about how HART is managing its employees.
E hana kakou (Let’s work together!),
Keli'i Akina, Ph.D.
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State auditor’s testimony to HART reemphasizes need for forensic audit
Watchdog group warns HART’s actions could have “chilling effect” on whistleblowers
News Released from Grassroot Institute
HONOLULU (May 31, 2018) >> In light of revelations from State Auditor Les Kondo that managers at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) are listening in on his conversations with HART staff during his efforts to audit the semi-autonomous city agency, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has renewed its calls for a forensic audit of the agency for waste, fraud and abuse.
At the HART board of directors meeting on May 31 (video available here), Kondo voiced his objection to a HART policy requiring all employees participating in the audit to record their interviews with him. Those recordings are being given to HART management, which has been transcribing them.
Calling the practice “unprecedented,” Kondo explained that an audit is not litigation or a criminal investigation. Rather, its purpose is to “examine the process, the procedures, the policies, that HART has and is using.” However, an effective audit depends on the free flow of information, which Kondo told HART is being inhibited by employees being required to record their interviews.
“In my opinion,” he said, “that is akin to management sitting in the interview itself. Big Brother is there, Big Brother is listening, and whether intended or not, the implication, in my opinion, to the employees is that they better toe the company line.”
Kondo went on to ask the board to reconsider its recording policy.
Keli‘i Akina, Grassroot Institute president, went a step further, suggesting that the HART recording practice comes perilously close to a violation of state whistleblower protections.
“HART’s questionable recording practices could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers,” Akina said. “What HART is trying to do is preemptively deter whistleblowers by intimidating them before they have the chance to talk to the auditor. This is in clear opposition to the spirit of our state whistleblower laws, which are meant to guarantee that employees can talk honestly to a state official like Mr. Kondo without fear of retribution.”
He said the discovery that HART is undermining the state audit “only emphasizes something that the Grassroot Institute has been saying for more than a year, that the organization’s behavior demonstrates the need for a comprehensive independent audit that will uncover any and all questionable practices at HART.”
Akina urged state policymakers to take “immediate action to stop the recording policy and explore any other problematic practices at the agency.”
SA: HART doesn’t need auditor transcripts
CB: State Auditor Says Rail Agency Is Interfering With His Work