Police Chief John Pelletier likely violated the Maui County Violence in the Workplace policy by “yelling and swearing” during a meeting with a Maui Police Department business administrator, who left in tears, according to an investigation into allegations that Pelletier and others violated county policies.
The investigation found that Pelletier’s actions during the April 13 meeting also likely violated the MPD Code of Conduct prohibiting employees from harassing or intimidating another person, as well as the county Employee Handbook.
The county hired Honolulu law firm Ota & Hara to do the investigation after the complaint was filed April 13.
A summary in the report dated July 1 said the investigator couldn’t substantiate many of the business administrator’s allegations, including one that Pelletier and Deputy Chief Charles Hank III made her feel threatened and afraid for her job at a Dec. 17 command staff meeting when Pelletier said he would “fillet the first one” who was insubordinate.
The investigator found that the conduct, occurring two days after Pelletier was sworn in, “while unorthodox for a first management-level conference, did not violate any policies.”
That finding was in contrast with a finding in a separate investigation into an MPD lieutenant’s complaint, filed Jan. 18, which alleged discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation by Pelletier and Hank. In the lieutenant’s case, an investigator with Honolulu law firm Marr Jones & Wang found that Pelletier likely violated the Violence in the Workplace Act by making a psychological threat or causing mental harm in the Dec. 17 meeting.
Although the lieutenant wasn’t in the meeting, she said she and her family feared for her safety after hearing a recording of the meeting.
She alleged Pelletier “filleted” her and the Community Relations Section she commands “and made an example of us” by “collapsing” the section on Jan. 27 and reassigning its four officers to other jobs.
The section was reinstated April 1, after Pelletier met with union officials and agreed the moves weren’t done correctly, but the lieutenant reported she was told to do only a portion of her job duties, according to the investigation.
The county provided redacted copies of the two investigations and a third investigation into a complaint by an MPD sergeant, following a request by The Maui News under the state Uniform Information Practices Act. Except for Pelletier and Hank, names were redacted, as was some other information.
Investigators used the standard of a preponderance of the evidence, or whether something was more likely than not true or false, for the independent fact-finding investigations.
At a meeting Sept. 7, after reviewing the investigations into complaints by the two officers and one civilian employee, the Maui Police Commission decided not to take disciplinary action against Pelletier.
“Investigations concluded that two of the complaints were not substantiated by the evidence,” Commission Chairman Frank De Rego said after the closed-door vote. “A third complaint was not substantiated to all grounds with the exception of an incident involving raised voices and unprofessional language.”
Honolulu attorney Joseph Rosenbaum, who represents the three women who filed the complaints, said they “are deeply troubled that the County of Maui has yet again refused to support its female employees and discipline MPD Chief John Pelletier and Deputy Chief Charles Hank III for their clear violations of the law and MPD policy.”
“Sadly, the county has again failed to protect MPD’s female employees,” Rosenbaum said. “Now these women, brave enough to stand up against the chief and his number one subordinate’s discriminatory conduct, are left without protection. The county’s lack of prompt and sufficient remedial steps taken against the chief and Deputy Hank leave these women feeling vulnerable to further harassment and retaliation.”
Asked if Pelletier wanted to comment on the results of the investigations, MPD spokeswoman Alana Pico said, “No comment will be made on these investigations.”
Police said last month that Hank was leaving MPD, effective Nov. 16.
In the business administrator’s complaint, the allegation that was substantiated involved an April 13 closed-door meeting that started with Hank and others. After the business administrator said she didn’t agree with posting for the position of a recruiting sergeant, which had been the subject of a union grievance, Hank called Pelletier to join the meeting.
The business administrator said Hank was angry.
After Pelletier joined the meeting, Hank asked her to repeat what she had said. Following an exchange, Hank said he didn’t care “who the f— is recording, but if you ever have anything you disagree with us about, you better put it in writing and let us know,” she reported.
According to her account, Pelletier “started yelling and swearing” and said “the department hasn’t done f—ing nothing for recruiting in years. There’s no recruitment plan.”
Pelletier said, “I don’t give a f— about who hears me yelling and cursing,” she said. He “used his index finger to press down at the table while he was speaking to make his point,” she told the investigator.
In response to what Pelletier and Hank did, she said she started crying and left the meeting.
In an interview with the investigator, both Pelletier and Hank said the business administrator laughed when Hank told her that “if she was so insistent, she should put it in writing.” Pelletier reported he raised his voice and said something like “this is f—ing unacceptable, I haven’t had (to) raise my voice in four months and I’m not going to put a cop on the wall … and the fact that this department hasn’t had a f—ing recruiting plan in years is unacceptable.”
He told the investigator he may have yelled “but it was appropriate because the department did not have a good recruitment plan, and with an officer shortage, police officers could be killed in the line of duty because they do not have adequate backup.” Pelletier said he “never pounded the table or pointed at it.”
Hank gave a similar account of what Pelletier said. Hank didn’t swear at the meeting, both he and Pelletier said.
While finding violations in Pelletier’s conduct that was corroborated by two others at the meeting, the investigator couldn’t substantiate that Hank yelled or swore at the meeting.
The investigator reported not giving credit to what Pelletier and Hank said about the meeting, noting they “have a motive to be less than candid with this investigator; they face potential discipline for the complaints alleged against them.”
In a credibility assessment of witnesses, the investigator didn’t find that Pelletier was “deliberately or intentionally providing inaccurate information, however, this investigator generally does not trust the accuracy of Chief Pelletier’s information and has placed less reliance on it.”
The investigator also said he “does not trust the accuracy of Deputy Hank’s information and has placed less reliance on it.”
The investigator found that Pelletier’s conduct constituted “acts of violence” or “violence,” under the Violence in the Workplace Action Plan.
“Here, the credible evidence lends credence to reporting party’s testimony that Chief Pelletier’s behavior during the meeting suggested an intent, and in fact, caused reporting party psychological damage or harm,” according to the investigation. “It is also undisputed and admitted by Chief Pelletier that he yelled and swore during the meeting.”
The investigation into the lieutenant’s complaint found it likely that Pelletier and Hank didn’t engage in retaliation, harassment or gender discrimination against her. While finding Pelletier likely didn’t violate the Violence in the Workplace Act by making a physical threat in the Dec. 17 meeting, the investigator found Pelletier likely violated the act by making a psychological threat.
The investigation referred to Pelletier’s comments during the meeting that he would not tolerate insubordination.
“I understand where it falls in codes of conduct and I understand how severe it can be, and anybody that is grossly insubordinate will not leave in good standing,” he said, according to a transcript of the recording. “I will not have it. I just … I will not have individuals or groups undermining the administration. That’s all I’m going to say on it and I think everyone knows exactly what I’m saying. But please do not be the one I make the example out of first. Because I will fillet the first one and then everybody will understand very quickly what I mean.”
Pelletier told the investigator that he thought using “fillet” in that context was appropriate. He said he “meant it as we would deal with that insubordination and cut it out from the department.” Pelletier said that after he was selected as chief and before he was sworn in, he “learned that certain captains and assistant chiefs were having meetings to discuss a mutiny or to erode public safety.”
“I had a group of captains and an assistant chief who would potentially cause people to die if they did not go to 911 calls,” Pelletier told the investigator. “I thought it was appropriate to say that we would not tolerate that.”
He said he didn’t direct the comment at a specific person.
Both Pelletier and Hank said the term “fillet” wasn’t a physical threat, according to the investigation.
The report said Pelletier left his statements unclarified “in a way that this investigator found to be a vague and slightly ominous warning against insubordination, with the consequence that Pelletier could potentially ensure that an individual ‘did not leave in good standing.’ ” Witnesses said that would jeopardize their careers and retirement benefits.
According to the investigation, multiple witnesses who had voiced concerns about Pelletier and Hank “interpreted Pelletier’s statement as a threat against speaking out or against Pelletier and Hank,” while others didn’t interpret the statement as a threat.
“The fact that at least seven witnesses stated that they believe they cannot contradict Pelletier or Hank on any matters for fear of retaliation, indicates that the effect of Pelletier’s statement negatively impacted their mental well-being in the workplace,” the report said. “While the use of the term ‘fillet’ alone is concerning, it is not the sole basis for this investigator’s finding that Pelletier violated the (Violence in the Workplace Act) since witnesses agree that strong language is used in the MPD workplace. It is Pelletier’s overall message and ominous language … — which was perceived as a threat against the employees’ careers and employment benefits if they engaged in undefined insubordination — that likely violates the (act). To find otherwise would disregard the witnesses’ concerns about retaliation, and their fear that their employment benefits could be in jeopardy if they simply disagreed with Pelletier or Hank.”
The investigator found it was likely that Hank didn’t violate the Violence in the Workplace Act in the Dec. 17 meeting.
The same investigator handled the investigation into the sergeant’s complaint and couldn’t substantiate her allegations of gender discrimination and retaliation.
The sergeant said she was subjected to retaliation after she filed the complaint and was removed from her job in the Community Relations Section, which was moved to a different office. After asking to be reassigned to the Criminal Investigation Division or a vacant visitor-oriented policing position in Kihei, she was reassigned to the Lahaina Patrol District before the Community Relations Section was reinstated.
According to the investigation, Pelletier said he decided to make changes to the section before he was sworn in. He said he collapsed the section and the Gambling and Morals Unit of the Vice Division to add six officers to the Wailuku Patrol District. He said he chose to move officers from those areas because the sections “were not adding functionality to the department.”
According to the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the three complaints are among eight that have been filed by county employees against Pelletier and members of his executive staff.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.