The Office of Hawaiian Affairs took over the Makaweli Poi Mill on Kauai’s west side almost a decade ago, sinking nearly $1 million into the venture.
After years of losses, OHA is no longer involved but now says the mill is doing better.
"The mill has had challenges but it is back in the hands of the community and it is productive. And so this community resource has been preserved,” Mona Bernardino, chief operating officer of Hiilei Aloha, told the OHA board during a May 25 trustees meeting.
Hiilei is the nonprofit arm of OHA that managed its investment in the mill.
But the company that now operates the mill -- Aloha Aina Poi Company LLC -- was co-founded by an OHA employee. Davis Price, 37, was a manager and partner with Aloha Aina while he worked as an aide to an OHA trustee.
Some beneficiaries say that’s a conflict of interest.
“I'm just completely shocked and disappointed. I'm disappointed in the trustees. I'm disappointed in the agency. I'm disappointed most of all in the administration,” said Nanakuli homesteader Germaine Meyers.
Hawaiian royalty descendant Abigail Kawananakoa has filed an ethics complaint against Price, whom she says used his position at OHA to block an audit of the poi investment. She believes the audit would have uncovered the alleged conflict and other misuses of OHA funds.
“Davis knew or should have known that his self-dealing and failure to disclose his personal financial interest … raises significant ethical and legal concerns,” Kawananakoa wrote.
Hawaii News Now has learned that a copy of Kawananakoa’s ethics complaint was forwarded to the state Attorney General's office, which is conducting a separate criminal investigation into OHA awards of contracts.
Price had no comment and OHA denied any conflict, saying it had nothing to do with Price's company being hired to run the mill.
"OHA is not involved in (the) management and operation of the Makaweli Poi Mill,” said OHA CEO Kamana'opono Crabbe.
Hiilei Aloha's Bernardino said OHA in 2012 transferred the poi mill to an organization called Supporting the Language of Kauai, which is a nonprofit arm of the Kawaikini Public Charter School.
SLK, in turn, employs Aloha Aina to run the mill. State business registration records show that Price and Kaina Makua created Aloha Aina in 2015 and both served as members and managers of the nonprofit. The poi produced by the mill is branded under the Aloha Aina name.
In a slide presentation to OHA board, Hiilei said it and OHA stated that it continued to issue grants to the poi mill while Price served as an officer of Aloha Aina. Three grants totaling $78,500 were issued to mill during the 2015-2016 period.
Aloha Aina’s 2017 filing with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs no longer lists Price as a company manager.
According to Bernardino, the mill is doing better under new management and has expanded its product lines to supermarkets on Oahu.
"These guys are the guys helping us, making our people profitable, making other people successful in the communities,” added OHA trustee Dan Ahuna.
But some Kauai taro farmers on Kauai disagree.
John Aana, who co-founded the mill, said many Kauai farmers cut back on taro production after 2012 when OHA transferred the mill’s ownership to SLK and not to the mill's employees.
"We used to process 75 (80 to 90 pound) bags of taro a week … Their production now? I would say less than ten, maybe less than five,” said Aana. “OHA is not too popular with the taro farmers. … They pretty much put us back 20 years."