A fraud and misspending investigation launched in 2013 at Kaiser High School ended years later without anyone being charged. But now players on both sides of that case are in the middle of an education shakeup.
Always Investigating’s first installment of this story explained how the Kaiser case involving former Principal John Sosa and at least five others was referred by the Department of Education to the Attorney General, which ultimately declined to file charges.
In Part 2, we sort out the connections between that case and the superintendent’s future, and the direction of Hawaii public education.
Two prominent names in Hawaii education have seen their careers make 180-degree turns over the past few years — the superintendent once rated “exceptional” now being ushered out, and a star principal who retired under a fraud investigation now among the helm of school reform and influence.
Kathryn Matayoshi says the 2013 investigation into Kaiser high school, Sosa and others was triggered by a tip to the Fraud & Ethics Hotline launched earlier that year.
Sosa retired months into the investigation, but the digging continued, the DOE referred their findings about spending, sports and facilities to the Attorney General. Criminal investigators pursued then closed the case in 2015 — no charges for anyone.
“They were basically on a witch hunt,” Sosa said, “trying to find something that they could pin on a number of us that were investigated, to I guess prosecute us.”
KHON2 asked, why would they spend that much time and energy at the DOE and the AG’s if there wasn’t a nugget of something? What happened? What was done with the money, what was done with the facilities that tiptoed to the line if not crossed it?
“I don’t think there was anything that even tiptoed to the line,” Sosa said, adding “The leadership felt that I was in some way causing them problems by not just going along with everything they say.”
He says he was vocal with concerns about the Race to the Top rollout and the teacher evaluation system.
KHON2 asked Sosa, before the investigation was he warned or instructed to back off of those complaints?
“There was a meeting where the Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe basically scolded principals for not just falling into line about things,” Sosa said. “Our questions were trying to make whatever initiative you are doing workable, it wasn’t about not complying.”
KHON2 asked Sosa if he had a definitive connection that the investigation arose because of his comments.
“I don’t have any strong evidence they did this directly,” he said, “but clearly the action they took against me sent a pall across the system where other administrators said we just better comply because if we don’t what they did to john can happen to me.”
KHON2 asked Matayoshi, is there a connection between Sosa questioning the department’s direction, and then finding himself at the center of an investigation?
“No, absolutely not,” Matayoshi said. “I don’t remember ever hearing from Sosa on it myself, and there meetings where numbers of voices said hey, this is not, we need support, we need more time, we didn’t think this is going the way it should. I don’t believe that these matters are related in terms of any kind of retaliation.”
KHON2 asked Matayoshi, why push the investigation on to the Attorney General at the time that it was sent there, in the summer of 2014 – after Sosa had retired, and after former head coach Rich Miano and former strength training volunteer and facility tenant Chad Ikei – also referred by the DOE to the AG for investigation — had left the school?
“I think there was a discussion internally as to what was a next step, if there was a sense there was something wrong that was done but we have no further recourse,” Matayoshi. “I think people didn’t want to leave it and wanted to see if in fact there was some further action to be taken.”
KHON2 questioned Matayoshi if there were any other motives for sending it to the AG?
“No, because we wouldn’t know what the outcome would be,” she said. “We have done it in other instances. I feel like that’s not my call to say ‘don’t send it, everything’s all good.’ I feel that’s the AG’s call to say’ we’ve looked at it, it’s no problem.'”
KHON2 asked about the extensive DOE and AG resources and time spent on the case, which turned up no charges.
“That’s their call to make, is it a criminal matter or not,” Matayoshi said. “There were at least 2 different AGs and 2 different heads of the criminal unit during that time and several investigators. And there was some follow-up by the AG’s office, because I kept saying can we just call it good? And they kept saying, ‘No, we’re still looking at it.’ I do think with attorneys, as cases and situations drag on, the question is do you go all the way back, how fresh is that evidence, statute of limitations and such.”
Sosa says he felt the referral to the AG went overboard and targeted him for speaking out post-retirement about lengthy school investigations, his and others.
“In my experience we never contacted the attorney general for anything like that unless we had pretty solid evidence that something like that occurred,” Sosa said. “In this case, in the letter which you have provided me it’s basically saying will you review our investigation, which ran the gamut from everything of just a financial audit to were people signing in were people not signing in, people doing their jobs, not doing their jobs.”
“It’s a tremendous amount of time and resources,” Sosa said, “and i have it through people in the department that were saying, you know you really shouldn’t be pursuing this, but they went ahead anyway.”
Several of those taking issue with how Matayoshi ran the department teamed up to create the Education Institute of Hawaii a school reform think tank. Sosa is its executive director. University of Hawaii law professor Randy Roth and retired principal Darrel Galera are also founders. Roth and Galera also publicized dissatisfaction with Matayoshi’s administration in a 2014 principals survey. The governor’s wife Dawn Ige has spoken at an Education Institute of Hawaii event. Galera is now on the Board of Education, and part of the ESSA school-blue-print team, appointed to both by Gov. David Ige. Matayoshi says Ige told her education needed to go in a different direction, and thereafter the board opted not to renew her contract.
KHON2 asked Matayoshi, does she think there is a connection?
“It’s hard to say specifically since the magic words were sort of like the ‘new direction’ and I’m not entirely clear on what that is,” Matayoshi said.
KHON2 asked Matayoshi, does she feel any of it is retribution for the Kaiser investigation?
“You know, I couldn’t speak to that,” Matayoshi said. “I know that one of the really hard things about this job is you have to make unpopular decisions based on the facts as you know it.”
KHON2 asked Sosa, could the action being taken against now against the superintendent be construed as some kind of payback for what Matayoshi’s administration put him and others through?
“I don’t have any information that would substantiate that,” Sosa said. “I think the reasons that the board chose not to renew the Superintendent’s contract are reasons that the board knows.”
Here’s the Board of Education’s latest explanation of why they want a change in leadership:
“One of the major problems that exists is the growing achievement gap and the inability to make progress with our struggling students,” board member Brian De Lima testified recently at the Capitol.
Many lawmakers don’t buy it.
“We’ve seen the achievement gap close, we’ve been seeing better performance, we’ve been seeing support for schools,” said Sen. Jill Tokuda, Senate Ways & Means chairwoman, “so I think we deserve better answers.”
Lawmakers point to Matayoshi’s stellar performance reviews before the shakeup and think it’ll be hard to hire now.
“Wow, even if you’re a great leader and you do great things, you still might not be around,” Rep. Roy Takumi, House Education Committee chairman, said during a recent Capitol hearing. “That’s a very toxic environment.”
But critics of Matayoshi say toxic comes from the top down.
“I do think that the low morale within the department – it’s no secret,” Sosa said.
“Sometimes people who are on the other side of that call don’t like it, so be it,” Matayoshi said. “I feel real strongly we’ve tried to make this organization one where we have the highest level of integrity. We’ve got to hold that standard high, and if people don’t meet it and there are problems, I think we have an obligation to pursue it. Sometimes it is messy and it is not pretty, and that’s one of the hardest things about this job, and that you can’t explain it publicly, that can be very frustrating.”
Much of the discord stems from the approach to discipline under Matayoshi. As of the start of the year there were 32 employees on either Department Directed Leave (DDL) or Leave Without Pay (LWOP) — a number that’s actually gone down under board scrutiny. But now many others just stay working while being investigated – shifted around on the job, critics say to avoid counting as a DDL or LWP. The DOE can’t tell me how many of those there are, because the information is not centrally tracked and investigations range at the school and complex level.”
Perceived pressure to lighten up or undercount possible wrongdoing concerns some lawmakers.
“One of the things we have to do is continue to ask questions,” Tokuda said. “The governor’s budget doesn’t reflect intent to close the achievement gap further. And in terms of looking at employee investigations, that was not even included in the governor’s budget which is very odd considering this board had been asking questions in terms of those investigations.”
Since 2013 the Fraud & Ethics Hotline where the Sosa tip originated has gotten 362 calls. Human resources tips top the list in terms of volume, followed by theft-of-time allegations. Safety concerns come in third, followed by misuse of resources allegations, fiscal impropriety, falsification of records, retaliation of whistleblowers, and kickbacks.
The DOE says 79 of the 362 calls were substantiated; 200 were not; 83 were classified “indeterminable.” And the DOE tells me that of several recent school theft and fraud convictions, “no notable criminal cases” came from the hotline. KHON2 asked Matayoshi about the volume of unsubstantiated calls.
“You don’t know with the anonymous fraud line whether or not it’s someone whose just angry and trying to put something out there, so you do need to take a look at it,” Matayoshi said. “It’s a forum where people who don’t know where to go can call. We’ve always had to fund it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Of cases that originated on the fraud hotline, two are still open from fiscal 2014; 5 from 2015; 6 from 2016; and 20 from fiscal 2017. Sosa says many investigations may be much like he experienced.
“There’s nothing proven against these people,” Sosa said. “It’s just a suspicion and it tears apart these people’s reputation.”
Sosa says he felt the DOE piled on at the end of his tenure with a belated re-hashing of a once-forgiven infraction, something others in DOE saw as a serious underage drinking episode that came to their attention far too late: Kaiser students were served alcohol by foreign hosts at a formal banquet on a China trip the previous spring.
“The second to last night we were there they had a big celebration dinner. The wine was poured on the kids table, and these are small glasses of wine. They had the toast, the kids toasted with the wine,” Sosa said. “The only reason we allowed that to happen was because by the time we noticed it they were just getting ready to start so we didn’t want to make a big to do about removing it. It wasn’t like a drinking incident that you hear about kids getting ahold of alcohol, going wild, getting drunk. It was just this formal dinner, kind of like when you are in Rome do what the Romans do. It crossed our mind but we said OK just let the toast go that’s it.”
Once the toast was done, he says the adults intervened.
“We told them we’re not condoning drinking, tell your parents about it, and if they have any questions about it to contact us,” Sosa said.
Upon return to Hawaii, Sosa says he told his immediate supervisor.
“I told him it happened, ‘if it’s something you need to take some action, then fine.’ He said, ‘No, forget about it,’ ” Sosa said.
Two weeks after Sosa was put on leave in the misspending investigation, however, the Spring teen drinking issue re-surfaced.
“They said that they had gotten a complaint from a community member,” Sosa said, “but we had not gotten any complaints from the parents.”
A retroactive letter of reprimand over the alcohol episode was added to his case file. Allegations of kids drinking abroad also added to the rumor mill surrounding reasons for the Kaiser shakeup.
“You get put on leave everybody in the community knows it. Lacking any information everybody makes up their information and you’re actually judged as being guilty before anything is being done,” Sosa said.
KHON2 asked Matayoshi, to those who might feel dragged through the mud, or feel like their reputations were tarnished only in the end not to be charged, and lost a career over it, can anything change in the DOE procedure to prevent that?
“All the information we receive is provided to the individual if they want to release it that would be their choice,” Matayoshi said.
“They draw these things out, they do things everybody feels is not fair to the person that is being investigated, in the end the people who initiated those investigations should be accountable for that,” Sosa said. “Those conducting the investigation should at least have the decency to close it, to close it with a letter or a comment that says we investigated, nothing was found, or an apology even.”