Top Hawaii Lawyers Disqualified from Dam Investigator Spot

June 2, 2006

Members of Hawaii’s top law firms have been knocked out of the running for a spot as special investigator of the Kaloko Reservoir dam disaster that collapsed in March flooded areas on the the island of Kauai.

In a 16-page document reviewed by selection committee members during a public meeting, Attorney General Mark Bennett listed Hawaii attorneys and firms disqualified for the position because they are involved in legal cases against the state.

Among the big firms whose members can’t be considered for the post are Cronin, Fried, Sekiya, Kekina & Fairbanks; Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, and Davis Levin Livingston Grande.

Selection committee members include Madeleine Austin, a Senate staff attorney and designee of Senate President Robert Bunda, D-Kaena-Wahiawa-Pupukea; House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, D-Wahiawa-Poamoho; Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-Lanikai-Waimanalo; and Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, who is the designee of House minority members.

Both Austin and Oshiro said resumes have already been received from out-of-state attorneys.

“So we may or may not find that we have to go out of town given the volume of lawyers who are disqualified,” Austin said.

The deadline to apply for the special investigator position is June 13. The committee will select five candidates with the final selection being made by Bennett.

On March 14 the Kaloko Reservoir dam broke, unleashing a wave of water that swept away seven people on the island’s North Shore. Only three bodies were recovered.

The attorney general began an investigation into the dam failure shortly after the disaster.

But in response to calls from property owners, local residents and some legislators for an independent investigation of the dam break, lawmakers passed a resolution calling for a special deputy attorney general to launch a new inquiry.

Under the resolution, the special deputy would separately pursue the civil portion of the case, which could involve monetary liability for state agencies or land owners.

During the meeting, Carlisle also raised a concern over paying the special investigator and suggested that notifying candidates of the state’s money limitations should be part of the screening process.

“Reasonable compensation, if you’re coming from a large firm, is not the same thing as what the coffers or empty coffers of the attorney general basically would provide for it,” he said.

While the state’s budget allows for $150 to $200 dollars per hour legal fees, it is not unusual for a Honolulu lawyer to seek $350 per hour, Austin said.

Some big firms, including on the mainland, however, do have pro bono or public service programs that would allow them to take on the Kaloko case, she said.

The committee hopes to have its list of candidates completed by the end of June.

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