EXCLUSIVE: Former OHA trustee talks about problems at agency

Published: Dec. 9, 2014 at 5:16 AM HST|Updated: Dec. 9, 2014 at 10:34 AM HST
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Office of Hawaiian Affairs
Office of Hawaiian Affairs

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - When Oswald Stender was elected as an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee 14 years ago, OHA had little more than half the assets it owns today and was reeling from the landmark Rice vs. Cayetano decision that struck down race-based programs for Hawaiians.

In November, the 83-year-old business executive retired from OHA's board, ending a half a century of public and community service. Hawaii News Now caught up with the outspoken, retired Marine at the Oahu Country Club last month, where he shared his opinions about the opportunities and challenges that OHA faces.

Question: "Are they in good hands? OHA?

Stender: "No."

OHA is now a $600 million state agency that owns over 27,000 acres of land but Stender says it doesn't have the expertise to properly manage or develop those assets.

"I don't think there's anyone capable of doing that so I think this first year is going to be difficult," he said.

He faulted the selection process for OHA's trustees.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court's Rice decision, most of the voting is done by non-Hawaiians who aren't familiar with issues that affect the Hawaiian community and wind up voting for the first name they see on the ballot, he said.

"You look at OHA and it's a popularity contest. You look at the election process, all the people (whose last names start) with A's have gotten elected," said Stender.

"The sad thing about OHA and Hawaiian Homes ... is the selection process of the leadership. They'll never be fixed until you fix that."

Stender singled out trustee Rowena Akana, who sued OHA's board over the 2012 purchase of the Gentry Pacific Design Center in Iwilei. Stender said the center, which now houses OHA, has benefited the state agency but Akana said it was was a backroom deal.

"Akana. She's the worst of them al. She's there for self-aggrandizement or whatever but she's not honest," Stender said.

"When (she) disagrees, she'll file complaints, go to the press and write all these things that don't make any sense at all."

Akana denied Stender's accusations, saying she's been a champion of transparency.

To be sure, Stender is no stranger to boardroom controversies.

Back in the late 1990s as a Bishop Estate trustee, he helped remove fellow trustee Lokelani Lindsey from her $1 million-a-year job over allegations of mismanagement and self-dealing.

Local business executive Colbert Matsumoto, who served as the Bishop Estate's court-appointed master during the scandal, said Stender provided key information about how the $7 billion trust -- now known as the Kamehameha Schools -- was being managed and mismanaged.

"Many of the reforms that have been put in place do find their genesis in some of ideas Os had advocated and I think the Kamehameha Schools is better off because of that," Matsumoto added.

On Wednesday, Stender will be the keynote speaker at the OHA trustee investiture ceremony. In addition to a new trustee Lei Ahu Isa, OHA will also select a new chair and new committee heads.

Stender said he's urging this new board to continue to push into real estate development and shun more risky businesses such as geothermal and legalized gambling.

"We don't have oil, we don't have gas, we don't have gold. We don't have any of that stuff. Real estate is the only thing," he said.

Stender believes that OHA can be fixed the same way that Kamehameha Schools was reformed: by setting up a special selection committee to attract the most qualified trustee candidates.

Stender believes a strong board is needced to hold OHA's management accountable. And he was critical of the way the past board handled the controversy over CEO Kamanaopono Crabbe letter to the U.S. State Department.

In that letter, Crabbe asked the department for a legal opinion as to whether the Kingdom of Hawaii still existed.

Some Hawaiians were worried that it undermined ongoing nation building efforts. Stender and several other trustees were irked that the letter was sent without the board's knowledge and its approval.

"The overthrow was illegal and Hawaiians suffered because of it," Stender said.

"But restoring the kingdom doesn't do it. At least for me and many Hawaiians, we need to move on where we are today and move forward and not keep crying in our beer."

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