Hawaii’s new attorney general, who may only hold on to that post for eight more months, found herself in the hot seat before a panel of state senators Tuesday morning.
The lawmakers questioned Holly Shikada, Gov. David Ige’s nominee for the state’s top lawyer, over personnel issues facing the department, including allegations from a top state investigator who said Shikada contributed to a hostile work environment at the office.
Ige appointed Shikada to take over as attorney general in December after Clare Connors left to become Hawaii’s U.S. attorney.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is vetting Shikada’s nomination, asked the AG’s office and Daniel Hanagami, the disgruntled state investigator, for documents related to complaints Hanagami made against the department and Connors.
Sen. Karl Rhoads, the committee chairman, said his staff was still trying to obtain those documents Tuesday afternoon. A preliminary vote on Shikada’s nomination is expected Friday. Rhoads said he is not sure how the committee members might vote, or if the documents could raise new concerns over the nominee.
Hanagami, 71, told lawmakers that he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, claiming that Connors and other department officials discriminated against him because of his age.
That civil rights investigation is still ongoing. Hanagami also told the senators that he feels as though he works in a hostile environment. He said the AG’s office asked the state Department of Public Safety to investigate him after he used pepper spray to detain a homeless man who had attacked him.
He feels that those episodes, as well as the department’s support of a bill that would have created a new fraud unit in the AG’s office are systematic attempts to strip him of his authority. The AG’s office has previously said that is not the case.
Shikada said the public safety investigation is ongoing and that she took part in the “decision making process” to refer the case to another department. She said there would be a conflict if an employee in the AG’s office was asked to investigate Hanagami, who is the head investigator in the office.
Shikada declined to speak further about ongoing investigations during the committee hearing.
Hanagami had filed other complaints internally with the AG’s office, but Shikada said those complaints did not result in any findings. She said she isn’t aware of other state investigators filing similar complaints.
“A hostile work environment is not acceptable,” she said. “Retaliation is not acceptable, we have done everything that we can to ensure that does not occur.”
Rhoads also asked about another issue Hanagami raised: the firing of a deputy attorney general who filed suit against the department last year.
The most recent employment lawsuit involving the AG’s office was filed by Dawn Shigezawa, the former director of the office’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. She was accused of unethical behavior in a handful of cases by Renee Sonobe-Hong, the administrator of the criminal justice division.
Shigezawa rebutted those allegations in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in November.
Though Shikada is not named in the lawsuit, the complaint describes a June 2021 meeting between Shigezawa and the “First Deputy Attorney General,” who at the time was Shikada.
During that meeting, the lawsuit says, Shikada gave Shigezawa the option to resign or take a demotion to an entry-level position.
During the hearing Tuesday, Rhoads said nominees answer a Senate questionnaire that asks if anything in their past could bring embarrassment to the governor, the department or the Legislature. Shikada did not believe there is anything in her background that could bring embarrassment to the state, Rhoads said while reading from her written answer.
“You didn’t think being sued by a disgruntled employee would qualify as something that would be a negative or an embarrassment?” Rhoads asked Shikada.
Shikada said she did not think it would be since that lawsuit concerned Shigezawa’s direct supervisor.
“There wasn’t anything I thought would be of embarrassment. There are always personnel issues occurring within our department,” Shikada said. “So there are personnel issues we need to deal with.”
Most testifiers who spoke at the committee hearing on Tuesday supported Shikada’s nomination.
Attorney Lyle Hosoda said he and Shikada have been friends since law school. He described her as strong and committed.
“We’ll only waste our breath talking about how she’ll defend our constitution, defend our rights, and defend our community – she’ll do all of that for us,” Hosoda said.
On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will decide whether to recommend Shikada’s nomination to the full Senate. No matter what the committee vote is, Shikada will still face a final vote by the full 25-member Senate.
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