HONOLULU (CN) — Former Maui County Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld claims he was fired “as a political favor” to Hollywood film producer Ryan Kavanaugh, a major financial backer of Mayor Alan Arakawa and his charities.
Donenfeld filed a 30-page wrongful termination lawsuit in Honolulu Federal Court earlier this month, also claiming discrimination, violation of privacy, due process, defamation, negligence and breach of contract.
According to the complaint, Donenfeld served as film commissioner — an appointed position — from August 2011 until September 2013, when he was “discharged because he was incompatible for the position,” according to a letter in Donenfeld’s employment file, referred to in the complaint.
The letter also states that “Donenfeld was discharged for reasons other than misconduct connected with work,” according to the complaint.
Donenfeld says that on the day prior to his dismissal, he was invited to a meeting in the mayor’s office with Arakawa, Kavanaugh with other staff present — one of whom was listening from behind an adjoining bathroom door, according to the complaint.
The meeting was prompted by an email from Kavanaugh to Arakawa asking to meet, reiterating his position on Donenfeld and that he had the power to influence two movies to film on Maui but was unlikely to do so because “producers wouldn’t want to deal with Maui’s current film commissioner,” the complaint says.
At the conclusion of the meeting, where Kavanaugh again expressed his dissatisfaction with Donenfeld, attendee Teena Rasmussen, director of the county’s office of economic development, told Donenfeld “that he was to be at his desk every morning at 7:45 a.m., or he would be fired.”
Rasmussen fired Donenfeld two weeks later, and Donenfeld says he was given “no reason, documentation or supportive evidence” other than he wasn’t at his desk at 7:45 a.m. one time after the meeting.
While Donenfeld had been given reason to believe he was safe in his position until Arakawa’s tenure as mayor ended, he says in his complaint that he had not planned to file a wrongful termination lawsuit until a series of articles published in The Maui News two years later brought the whole issue and more into the limelight.
The series began in September 2015 with “Pay for Play,” which scrutinized Arakawa’s relationship with Kavanaugh and its influence on Maui politics and Donenfeld’s employment.
A follow-on article in October 2015 titled “Mayor: Ex-film commissioner ‘wasn’t coming to work'” quoted Arakawa saying “[t]he reason [Donenfeld] was fired was because he wasn’t coming to work, period” spurred Donenfeld to sue.
“I had to file to protect my name,” Donenfeld told Courthouse News. And according to his complaint, he “has even had job offers unrelated to Maui’s film industry revoked for the express reason that prospective employers fear Mayor Arakawa and his public statements concerning Donenfeld’s work ethic.”
The final piece of information that finally pushed Donenfeld to bring his lawsuit happened after The Maui News reporter Brian Perry shared with him portions of emails between Kavanaugh and the mayor’s staff that Perry obtained from Maui County through Hawaii’s Uniform Information Practices Act.
Until that point, Donenfeld did not have any knowledge or proof that he fired improperly, the complaint states. But Perry’s digging revealed that Kavanaugh sent emails to Arakawa’s office four days before the mayor’s Kokua Ball in March 2013, saying he could no longer work on the “Hawaii initiative unless (Donenfeld) is no longer involved,” and that he “cannot be at the (Kokua Ball) or continue to support (film legislation) if (Donenfeld) is involved.”
At the time, Kavanaugh was working with officials in Arakawa’s office to lobby state lawmakers to significantly increase subsidies to the film and TV industry. In May 2013, the state Legislature approved a measure to increase tax credits for film and TV projects from 15 to 20 percent for Oahu and from 20 to 25 percent for Hawaii’s other islands.
According to Donenfeld’s lawsuit, Kavanaugh grew dissatisfied with Donenfeld’s performance as film commissioner and was concerned that he had assisted in the formation of the Maui Film Studios, and that its “emergence threatened the likelihood that the movie tax bill, that Kavanaugh had spent over $2 million to support, would be enacted by the state Legislature.”
“Maui Film Studios’ stages aren’t enough to shoot a porn, let alone one scene of a movie,” Kavanaugh wrote in an email to Arakawa’s office, according to Donenfeld’s lawsuit.
Donenfeld says pressure from Kavanaugh led to the meeting in Arakawa’s office, the order that Donenfeld be at his desk at 7:45 a.m., and his eventual firing.
Maui County communications officer Rod Antone declined an email request for comment, citing the pending litigation.
Representatives of Kavanaugh and Relativity Studios did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.
Since Donenfeld’s departure from the film office, the bill to increase tax incentives for movies and television failed in the Legislature. Kavanaugh restructured his Relativity Studios after filing for bankruptcy, and the film industry on Maui is still languishing after promised movie production deals fell through.
Several movie and music industry celebrities call Maui home or own a chunk of island real estate, including Kavanaugh, Mick Fleetwood, Oprah Winfrey and Woody Harrelson.
Donenfeld is represented by Michael C. Carroll of the firm Grant Fasi Allison in Honolulu.
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