Earlier this month, the State Ethics Commission disclosed the resolution of a complaint against an ACO (Adult Corrections officer) at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center.
It involves serious allegations of misconduct by these prison guards and leaves many unanswered questions.
The commission alleges Bernie Abella, and two other unnamed ACOs, arranged to take $10,000 from an inmate under their supervision. The inmate signed a power of attorney to one of the ACOs, who then used it to withdraw $10,000 from the inmate’s account in a Kona bank. After depositing the funds in his own account, he then wrote checks to each of the other ACOs involved.
Abella received $3,000, according to the commission.
The commission does not clarify the nature of this exchange. The ethics law prohibits any state official or employee “soliciting, accepting, or receiving a gift if it is reasonable to infer the gift is given to influence or reward the employee in the performance of his or her state duties.” The commission also viewed the case as involving violation of the “Fair Treatment” section of the law, which prohibits using one’s official position “to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts, or treatment, for oneself or others . . . .”
So from the point of view of the commission in enforcing the gift law, it apparently didn’t matter whether the inmate had offered the ACOs money, presumably in exchange for some kind of special favors, or whether the three were using their positions of authority to “shake down” the inmate. The commission resolution doesn’t disclose whether the exchange of funds was related to any exchange of favors or other actions. And, of course, there are other less incriminating possibilities, but in a correctional situation it isn’t unrealistic to suspect the motives of those involved.
We also don’t know why this complaint came to the Ethics Commission, as it would appear to involved potentially criminal actions outside of its jurisdiction. Was any action taken by the Department of Public Safety or any other law enforcement agency? I tried a quick online search but didn’t find anything.
The commission says the case involved a “former inmate.” My guess is that the inmate went to the commission after being released from custody, and perhaps the statute of limitations had already expired for any potential criminal charges. But that’s just guessing.
The commission settled a complaint after the Abella agreed to pay a $1,500 administrative penalty and an additional $3,000 in restitution.
There is no indication of the fate of the additional $7,000 taken from the inmate and whether the commission, or any other agency, is attempting to claw back the additional funds.
And we’re left with questions about what the Department of Public Safety knew, and when did they know it? Did they have knowledge of the situation anytime between the end of 2009 and the present? What action was taken, if any?
According to the commission, Abella’s employment at HCCC ended in January 2010, just a month or so after the money was withdrawn from the inmate’s account and split among the three ACOs, but whether or how that was related to this scheme remains unknown.