EXCLUSIVE: Senate UH probe widens beyond failed concert
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The State Senate's investigation into UH's Stevie Wonder concert fiasco and its aftermath is expanding in scope to include numerous financial and management issues at the university, and could continue for several weeks.
State senators have asked Board of Regents Chairman Eric Martinson, UH President M.R.C. Greenwood, former Athletics Director Jim Donovan and former UH Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw to testify September 24 at a special hearing into the failed Stevie Wonder concert and its aftermath. The lawyers who worked on the UH's investigation of the failed concert have also been called to testify that day.
"It's funny how when things like this happen. That's the surface. But it's deeper problems that have been brewing for a while," said State Sen. Donna Kim, (D-Moanalua, Aiea, Kalihi Valley), chair of the Senate Accountability Committee. "I think there are many layers to it. So and there are a number of people. And we don't want to jump to any conclusions so I want to make sure that we're thorough."
Kim has asked UH for a list of documents including outside contracts for UH public relations and all UH PR positions and salaries.
"Why do we need so many people on staff if you're out sourcing it [public relations]," Kim asked during an interview in her capitol office Thursday.
A Honolulu Star-Advertiser investigation in August found the UH system has at least 43 public relations people on the payroll and a PR budget of about $4 million. The UH has at least one contract with a Honolulu PR firm which is paid a flat fee of $2,500 a month.
Kim is also asking the university for 12 years worth of buyouts or severance payments to employees who've left UH.
"What is the board policy as to some of these so-called settlement packages, some of these golden parachutes that the board has been approving," Kim said.
The Senate's lone Republican, Sam Slom, (R-Hawaii Kai, Aina Haina, Kahala), also serves on the five-person committee.
"I assure you that it will be neither a witch hunt or a white wash. It will be fair," Slom said. "It's going to be an objective and comprehensive hearing. I think the university should have been more forthcoming and sooner."
Slom said he met with Greenwood in his capitol office Tuesday at her request and he told her he wants to know about the high salaries for UH executives.
"The knock on the university is that students can't get all the courses they want because there's not enough professors. That we're building up the bureaucracy and we're having all these positions, do we really need them," said Slom.
Slom is also concerned about an accreditation team's letter critical of the academic leadership at UH's brand new campus in West Oahu, which Hawaii News Now first reported Aug. 20.
"The university poo-poos that and says 'Oh there's nothing really there. It's normal to get a letter of concern from the accreditation committee.' Really? I've never heard of that before. You get a letter of concern because there's concern," Slom said.
Kim has also asked for a list of consultants contracted by the regents and the UH president over the last five years, the amount of money spent to hire private legal counsel from April 2011 to March 2012 and legal expenses connected to the investigation into the Stevie Wonder concert debacle.
"The legislature gave UH autonomy and along with that comes accountability," said fellow committee member State Sen. Les Ihara, (D-Palolo, St. Louis Heights, Kaimuki). "We will look at how well the regents perform their accountability function. It shouldn't be our job to do this, but there are so many unanswered questions."
Kim has tentatively scheduled a second hearing on Oct. 2, during which she may call UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple and others to testify. Other UH topics could be taken up at subsequent dates over the coming weeks or months, Kim said.
Asked how long the hearings will take, Kim said, "It goes to how cooperative the university will be in giving us the answers, or will we have to follow up with some of their answers that they may not want to give us."
Kim said she has met with several UH regents who have assured her they will "fully cooperate." She has asked all those requested to appear to notify her if they are unable to attend the hearings and she said she has not heard back from any UH officials who said they are unable to show up.
Interestingly, after Greenwood met with Slom on Tuesday, Greenwood's staff called the offices of two other senators on the committee, Kim and Ihara, and canceled meetings Greenwood had set up with those senators, Kim said. The senators' offices got those notifications with only a few hours' notice, Kim said.
It's unclear why Greenwood decided not to keep the pre-hearing meetings she had asked for in the first place. An email asking a UH spokeswoman for an explanation about the canceled meetings was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.
A UH spokeswoman said Greenwood planned to testify at the hearings.
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