During confirmation hearings early this year, Bruce Coppa, then Governor Abercrombie’s nominee to serve as state comptroller and director of the Department of Accounting and General Services, drew praise for his communications and networking skills, extensive community involvement, and years of executive experience.
Business and labor leaders, ranging from Star-Advertiser president and publisher, Dennis Francis, to United Public Workers Executive Director Dayton Nakanelua, threw their support behind the nomination.
But two companies were conspicuous by their absence. They were Coppa’s most recent private-sector employers, Communications Pacific Inc., and Pacific Resource Partnership, a project of the Hawaii Carpenters Union and its signatory contractors. Together, the two accounted for the last 16 years of Coppa’s professional career. Neither submitted testimony for the record.
Coppa has now been tapped to serve as Abercrombie’s chief of staff and state administrative director, following an unexpected staff exodus that has shaken the governor’s administration. Political observers are hoping he can provide a steady hand to get the governor’s office back on course, but it is the first time he has been exposed to this level of public scrutiny.
John White, who was named director of Pacific Resource Partnership in January, said the group’s absence wasn’t a reflection on Coppa’s qualifications. White said the Senate confirmation hearing came just after he was hired at PRP following an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the City Council, and was simply overlooked during the transition period.
Catherine “Kitty” Lagareta, Communications Pacific president and chairman, declined to comment.
But records in a district court lawsuit show Coppa had been quietly terminated in June 2010 from the high-profile job as chief operating officer of Lagareta’s public relations and marketing powerhouse.
The reasons for Coppa’s termination were not disclosed, and the termination itself apparently is not widely known. It entered the public record when Coppa responded by suing Communications Pacific following his dismissal last year. The lawsuit was triggered when at least part of a company-standard severance package was withheld amid allegations Coppa had violated confidentiality and non-compete agreements by removing proprietary business and client records, and then approaching CommPac clients on behalf of his then-newly formed company, Coppa Consulting Inc.
Coppa, reached by phone earlier this week, said he left Communications Pacific in order to take a more active role in development of Kapolei Village Center, a project involving Kapolei Shops LLC, in which Coppa is a member. He said the Kapolei Village Center project was ready to break ground and offered an opportunity to push forward with his own consulting firm.
Coppa said his departure from Communications Pacific was on “excellent” terms.
When asked directly about the lawsuit, he downplayed it as “nothing serious,” saying it dealt with “technical issues” relating to his move.
However, a demand letter from Coppa’s attorney, included in the court record, accused the company of terminating Coppa from the $150,000 a year position and refusing his request for severance pay.
The letter said Coppa had been surprised by company allegations because he had been given no indication that his termination “was at all due to his lack of performance or conduct.”
Court records show Coppa had been hired in 2005 as a senior vice president at the public relations firm, then promoted to executive vice president in January 2006, and again to chief operating officer in 2008. Along the way, Coppa signed agreements prohibiting disclosure of confidential information about the company or its clients, including client lists, pricing data, business plans, or any information marked “confidential.” These confidentiality provisions were repeated in a severance agreement effective June 30, 2010.
However, a July 28, 2010 letter from Jeffrey S. Harris, attorney for Communications Pacific, alleged that after Coppa learned of his “separation,” he directed his executive assistant “to make copies of all the company’s marketing and media training materials.” The company alleged he then made use of its materials and client records to solicit business for his new consulting firm.
The lawsuit was settled by mutual agreement when Communications Pacific agreed to pay Coppa a total of $14,241.45 in severance, attorneys fees, and costs in exchange for his return of all documents, and renewal of his agreement to comply with the nondisclosure and non-compete provisions.
While employed by Communications Pacific, Coppa had been given special permission continue to work in real estate sales and development “on his own time, after hours and on weekends.” Such outside interests are generally prohibited by the company’s conflict of interest policy.
Coppa holds a license as a real estate salesperson for Hawaii 5-0 Properties, according to state records. During 2010, he earned between $25,000 and $50,000 in commissions from real estate sales, according to personal financial disclosures filed with the ethics commission. Kathleen Kagawa is the sole officer of 5-0 Properties, state licensing records show.
Coppa reported an investment of $50,000 to $100,000 in Kapolei Gateway LLC, headed by commercial real estate execs Mark Bratton and Kim Scoggins of Colliers International. The company was dissolved in 2009, business registration records show. Scoggins and Bratton are also principals in Pacific Perspectives Investment and Development Company LLC, in which Coppa reports holding a 2.77% interest.
State business registration records also list Coppa among the members of Kapolei Shops LLC, developer of Kapolei Village Center, although it does not appear on his financial disclosures on file with the ethics commission.
Coppa said this week that he has no plans to give up his active real estate license and the other financial interests that he has publicly disclosed.