LeMahieu acknowledges friendship with contractor
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By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer
A day after resigning, former schools chief Paul LeMahieu admitted yesterday that he had "crossed the line" in a relationship with a woman who heads a company that was granted a $612,000 contract for special-education services.
Deborah Booker The Honolulu Advertiser
Former superintendent of schools Paul LeMahieu insists there was no conflict in a contract he awarded.
Deborah Booker The Honolulu Advertiser
Allegations about the relationship emerged from a legislative investigation into the amount of money being spent and potential conflicts of interest in the Department of Education's efforts to improve special-education services under the Felix consent decree.
Legislators focused on rumors that have been swirling for months that LeMahieu was having an affair with Kaniu Kinimaka-Stocksdale. Kinimaka-Stocksdale owns Hilo-based company Na Laukoa, to which LeMahieu granted a contract. She did not return telephone calls last night.
LeMahieu awarded the contract using special powers given to him by the federal court, which allowed him to bypass the usual oversight of the Board of Education.
When the Advertiser asked LeMahieu about the rumors last month, he denied there was an affair. Again this week he said he and Kinimaka-Stocksdale had been friends but the friendship had only developed after the contract was awarded.
But yesterday, after the Board of Education had accepted his offer to resign Thursday night, LeMahieu admitted that there was more to the relationship. His admission came a day before Kinimaka-Stocksdale is scheduled to testify under oath before the legislative committee.
"There was a professional and friendly relationship as that contract was being developed," LeMahieu said. "We put into place the oversight, review judgements and recommendations of others to make sure that I alone wasn't making the judgements."
"Then, over time, things continued, the personal side continued to develop and at a point we crossed the line. We shouldn't have done that. We regretted doing it. We set it aside. We ended it."
The contract with Na Laukoa had created something of an uproar in the Department of Education. After concerns were raised about Na Laukoa's ability to do the job, the contract was granted to another company, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning, with Na Laukoa as a subcontractor. The total contract was for $2.3 million, with Na Laukoa receiving $612,000.
PREL President John Kofel has told The Advertiser that it was his company's decision to include Na Laukoa in the contract.
LeMahieu expressed his frustration that the eventual success of the contract has been overshadowed by the controversy. Na Laukoa's role was to provide "technical assistance coordinators" for the 15 school complexes facing the toughest struggle to improve special education services as required by a federal judge under the Felix consent decree. Of the nine complexes that have been tested so far, seven have passed and two have gotten half way there.
"Everybody is focusing on the wrong stuff," LeMahieu said. "That doesn't surprise at all given what we apparently want to do. ... But I'll take responsibility for what I did and that's what I've done. The big mistake is confusing that for horrible wrongdoing."
LeMahieu said the events have been painful for him and those around him, including his wife.
"The one thing that we're thankful for is that she and I faced this actually a long time ago," he said. "So this is about as unpleasant as life can get, but (she) also doesn't have the shock of learning this."
LeMahieu said he had received much support since news spread of his resignation.
"My e-mail box today is full of messages of good wishes of gratitude, of appreciation and I'm going to save them and read them some other day when I can be more gracious in receiving them. Because each one, while it makes me smile at some level, also makes me cry because it's one more person that I've let down in some fashion. But the fact is, (everyone shares) that responsibility."
The relationship played a small part in his decision to offer his resignation to the board, LeMahieu said.
While many in education circles expressed regret at LeMahieu's departure, there were some who agreed it was time he moved on.
It has been a difficult year for the former superintendent of education. In addition to trying to move 250 schools, 18,000 full-time employees and 183,000 students in a new direction, LeMahieu had to deal with the Felix consent-decree and the longest teachers strike in state history. He became embroiled in a bitter lawsuit with an employee who says LeMahieu wrongfully removed him from his position. And he drew the ire of the board when he committed department money to pay for a teachers' bonus without clearing it with the board.
Speaking before LeMahieu's revelation about the relationship, Gov. Ben Cayetano yesterday said he didn't believe LeMahieu would have been able to continue as superintendent under the shadow of the allegation of an affair, and that he would have done the same thing if put in LeMahieu's situation.
"I think it was too serious an allegation," Cayetano said. "But I feel for him because he felt that he had not had really an opportunity to air the other side of the coin so to speak, but rather than do that, he decided that he would step down."
Cayetano said six Board of Education members visited him the day before LeMahieu resigned, but he declined to give details of the discussion.
"They expressed their concerns about the testimony that came out that day about some of these allegations, and of course I just expressed the opinion that it was important to be fair about things, and then I have no idea what happened after that," he said.
And while some are blaming the Legislature's investigation for driving LeMahieu out, Cayetano said he thinks legislators are "conducting business fairly and pretty objectively."
"They've pretty much just tried to listen to the facts and let people draw their own conclusions from those facts," he said. "So I don't think that they've been unfair."
However, LeMahieu's departure may bring ramifications for the state in its efforts to avoid a federal court takeover of the special education system next month. Attorneys in the Felix case have said they are concerned about the impact and nature of the investigation. Felix plaintiff attorney Eric Seitz yesterday called the investigation "irresponsible." The Legislature's actions call into question its commitment to continue pay for special education services as required by federal law, he said.
"From my perspective, I think it makes it virtually certain that some sort of receiver is going to have to be appointed," Seitz said.
"One reason they have made the most significant progress they've made in the last couple of years is because of the leadership of Dr. LeMahieu," he added. "Take that away and we don't have a lot of confidence that they will complete the process or be able to sustain."
But while Hawai'i's troubled public school system was reeling from the sudden ouster of LeMahieu, leaders vowed to continue on track.
Principals, teachers and students arrived at school yesterday morning to find an overnight change in leadership. The board voted on Thursday night to appoint former deputy superintendent Pat Hamamoto as interim superintendent until August.
The former McKinley High principal sprang into action yesterday, mostly reassuring staff that they will not have to change course.
"We have no intention of changing the agenda," she said, praising the reforms that LeMahieu has put in place. Hamamoto said it is too early to say if she will be a candidate in the board's search for a new superintendent.
And as she held a press conference in LeMahieu's old office yesterday, his personal belongings were still there. Along with the business cards and plaques, on a wall hung a vacation-style photo of LeMahieu and his wife, smiling, in more relaxed times.
Advertiser Staff Writer Lynda Arakawa contributed to this report.