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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 6, 2003

Whistleblower wins damages

By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer

A Circuit Court jury yesterday awarded $790,000 to a former employee of prominent engineering firm Mitsunaga & Associates who was fired after blowing the whistle on construction problems at a state bridge-widening project on Kaua'i.

The jury deliberated four days — nearly as long as the trial itself — before deciding the case yesterday in favor of former Mitsunaga employee Ross Wright.

Circuit Judge Eden Hifo, who presided over the trial, took the unusual step of allowing attorneys for both sides to repeat arguments on punitive damages to the jury yesterday afternoon after the panel said it could not reach a decision.

William Sink, Wright's lawyer, originally asked the jury last week for $2.6 million in punitive damages, but told the panel yesterday afternoon, "We don't care if it's $1 or $2 million. This case was never about money to Ross. It was about standing up and doing the right thing."

The jury deliberated another two hours before awarding Wright $500,000 in punitive damages. The nine-woman, three-man panel also awarded him $90,000 in special damages and $200,000 in general damages.

Curtis Tabata, attorney for Mitsunaga, told the jury last week that problems on the project — widening a two-lane highway bridge spanning Waikaea Stream — were the fault of the general contractor, Abhe & Svoboda. Mitsunaga & Associates was hired by the state to oversee the construction work.

Wright also named the state Transportation Department and Abhe & Svoboda as defendants in his lawsuit, but they were dismissed from the case before it went to trial.

Mitsunaga lawyer Tabata declined comment yesterday on the verdict.

Sink said he expected Mitsunaga to appeal.

The bridge project has been plagued by delays. It was supposed to be completed in September 2001 but is still not finished.

Transportation Department spokesman Scott Ishikawa said yesterday the bridge is "95 percent complete" but still needs redesign work on guardrails at one end.

Last year, the federal government, which was to pay 80 percent of the construction cost, withdrew from the project and threatened to seek repayment of $1.6 million in federal money the state already had spent on the job.

According to documents obtained by The Advertiser under the Freedom of Information Act last year, the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation were conducting separate investigations into allegations of fraud, shoddy recordkeeping and inadequate oversight of the bridge project.

The status of those investigations could not be determined yesterday, and Ishikawa said no decision had been made on federal money.

"We're hoping we can work something out with the feds," he said. "Otherwise we may have to foot the entire bill ourselves."

Mitsunaga & Associates is one of the largest engineering and architectural consulting firms in the state. President Dennis Mitsunaga was a principal political fund-raiser for numerous Democratic Party politicians in Hawai'i, including former Gov. Ben Cayetano and Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Reach Jim Dooley at jdooley@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2447.