BLOWING THE WHISTLE: The former chief procurement officer says she was fired for challenging top DOE officials about waste and corruption
By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org
HONOLULU— The former chief procurement officer for the Hawaii Department of Education has filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Oahu’s 1st Circuit Court.
Andrell Aoki is an experienced lawyer trained in procurement law and was responsible for overseeing $100 million in DOE contracts annually since 2007.
Aoki says she was wrongly terminated in March because she opposed her supervisor’s plan to issue several key federal contracts illegally.
Aoki said she and her nine-member staff reviewed 200 to 300 DOE contracts annually to ensure compliance with state procurement code and administrative rules.
In the lawsuit, she says Amy Kunz, the DOE chief financial officer, tried to push through projects and contracts without regard for state regulations or laws.
When Aoki questioned the legality of several DOE contracts, she was fired.
Specifically, Aoki says she and Kunz clashed after Kunz insisted in August 2012 on issuing a non-bid contract to the New Jersey-based firm, the Danielson Group, to provide training for what was to be a newly implemented teacher evaluation system.
The project, called the “Teaching Observation Protocol,” is connected to the U.S. Department of Education’s Round Two of Race to the Top funds.
She said “pre-selecting” the Danielson Group violated state law, because other groups offered similar products and methods and should have been allowed to bid.
In March 2013, the State Procurement Office initiated its own investigation into the contract award and said the violations were of a magnitude and seriousness that justified terminating the contract.
Aoki said both Kunz and the DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi retaliated against her, intimidated her and ultimately fired her.
In another case, Aoki said the DOE illegally issued a multi-million dollar contract to Lenovo, a computer manufacturer, for laptops.
The contract was part of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s controversial “Laptops for Learning Project,” in which he planned to issue a laptop to every public-schools student.
The DOE issued the request for proposal on June 13, 2012, but then delegated the lap top project to the governor’s office, Aoki said, in clear violation of Hawaii law.
The contract should have been canceled and rebid, Aoki said, but Kunz approved the contract.
Dell Computers challenged the Lenovo award.
The state Procurement Office also launched an investigation and told the DOE to cancel the contract and to again put it out for bid.
Aoki noted she has been a stellar employee, receiving the “Government Transformation Champions of Change Award” from the Office of Information Management and Technology, because of her commitment, dedication and support to improve the state Department of Education.
But personnel reviews from Kunz after she pointed out illegal activities called her “unyielding” and “inflexible.”
Honolulu attorney Roman Amaguin represents Aoki. He said DOE officials were served with the lawsuit last week and have 20 days to respond.
Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokeswoman for the DOE, said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.