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The promise of a six-figure career in an exciting but dangerous field lured dozens into a costly class. Now the teacher can’t be found, the students’ money is gone, and their jobs are on the line.
What we found goes all the way up to the Department of Defense.
Unexploded ordnance technicians throughout Hawaii and beyond took courses they thought were affiliated with the University of Hawaii, only to find out the certificates they spent thousands of dollars on are not valid.
Kalahiki De Dely saw an opportunity to take the next step beyond his Waianae High School diploma and some college courses. He wanted to be a “UXO” tech like his older brothers.
“We take out all the explosive hazards so nobody gets hurt,” De Dely explained. “We’re basically cleaning up Hawaii, all the military ranges that have been used.”
De Dely took out a loan for $5,000 to attend a 5-week course on the Big Island put on by Native Hawaiian Environmental Services, run by Joe Johnson.
Graduates got certificates that said this: “Unexploded Ordnance Technician Level 1 Course, a University of Hawaii System Program.”
“So that makes you think what?” KHON2 asked.
“They’re backed by the UH,” De Dely responded.
He got a high-paying job right away, hunting and clearing Army munitions.
“A year and a half, 2 years later, everything is perfect, I’m working,” he said, “and then rumors get started.”
Rumors — turning out to be true — that Native Hawaiian Environmental Services isn’t affiliated with UH at all, at least not any more.
“I’ve never experienced this in my 43 years in the community colleges,” said UH Community Colleges Vice President John Morton. “Back in 2009 the University of Hawaii was approved by the Department of Defense to offer unexploded ordnance technician 1 training, and NHES was our vendor, our partner.”
He said it was popular but was discontinued in 2009 by UH. But the company NHES kept selling the course, minting the certificates, and making a mint themselves — a class list KHON2 obtained shows as least 50 students after the UH ties were severed, and each paid about $5,000 each. Not until 2012 did it hit the UH radar; UH sent a cease-and-desist letter.
“We informed them that they needed to take that off of their website and make sure that the Department of Defense and the Army Corps of Engineers knew that we no longer had an affiliation with NHES,” Morton said.
“Why didn’t you check it out yourself whether NHES really was affiliated with UH before giving them your money?” KHON2 asked.
“He was legitimate at one time when he was holding the classes,” De Dely said, “so I thought if he did it then, why would he have changed it? I was just thinking of working and acquiring the certificate and all the future that holds.”
He had no idea the future would hold this: Just over a month ago, the Army Corps of Engineers told all under their military munitions oversight that people holding these certificates issued after 2009 may not do UXO tech work.
“It’s basically fraudulent,” Morton said, “and the people who are victims are the people who paid him or the company to do that training because their certificates became invalid.”
But some victims say the blame is more widespread.
“UH seems like they’re kind of deflecting, keeping us at arms-length, but it’s kind of hard to believe they were so oblivious to this for so long,” De Dely said. “I was working for two years and all of a sudden they just yanked the rug from underneath my feet.”
People started losing their jobs.
“Once companies started finding out about it they didn’t want to be affiliated with any of this,” De Dely said. “I couldn’t sleep, it was very tough, I’m trying to think of what else I’m going to do to pay rent, pay my bills.”
He and a handful of others got lucky — their employers are finding other things for some of them to do until the certificate row can get sorted out.
“I’m just doing geographical maps, going out there and kind of assisting with the guys, the UXO workers,” De Dely said, “but I can’t dig, I can’t do some of the things a normal UXO can do anymore.”
As for Joe Johnson, he’s nowhere to be found, all phones are disconnected, the company reportedly folded, the entity is terminated in state business registrations.
“Based on what I heard, Joe has left the country, because his house is all empty,” De Dely said.
Police reports have been filed, at least one lawsuit, too.
When KHON2 asked the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs about it, they said:
“Someone with a concern about whether he or she was the victim of fraud in a transaction involving a company should call the DCCA’s Consumer Resource Center (587-4272) to file a complaint. If they appear to be a possible victim of unfair and deceptive acts and practices, the Office of Consumer Protection would investigate.”
As for the Army, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to KHON2 by saying:
“The Department of the Army is aware of this unfortunate situation and is working with concerned parties to develop reasonable alternatives to address it.”
KHON2 also asked UH this: “What can be done for these graduates of what they thought was a legitimate program going forward?”
“We’ll do whatever we can with the Corps, and if we can get the program back out here we will for those students.”
Morton said UH is working with mainland colleges to hold accredited courses here, but it’s still unclear how much it would cost and how much of the bill the students themselves would have to pay again. Victims say they’ve been told the Army Corps of Engineers may grant some kind of grandfathering, or recognize time on the job.
De Dely said he feels the skills you learned were legitimate, it’s just the piece of paper that isn’t.
“I’m out in the field,” De Dely said. “Actually being out there, doing everything hands on, you learn everything.”
On Friday the Hawaii County Police confirmed they have received complaints about a training class in unexploded ordnance and are investigating. Our reporting also alerted the state Attorney General’s office to the matter.