Gift of legal fees gets OHA trustee in hot water

Published: May. 1, 2018 at 5:38 PM HST|Updated: May. 2, 2018 at 11:09 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Ethics Commission has informed Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Rowena Akana that she is being investigated for accepting money for legal fees from Abigail Kawananakoa, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty.

The confidential Ethics Commission charge, which was leaked to certain news organizations Monday, also cites alleged misuse of Akana's annual allowance as a trustee for things like cable service to her home, political donations, a Hawaiian Airlines Premier Club membership, a home security system and food for parties for herself and OHA staff.

The legal fees. amounting to just over $72,000, were given to Akana between 2015 and 2017 while she was engaged in a lawsuit with the other trustees. She has pointed out that while the other trustees had their legal fees covered by OHA, she had to rely on Kawananakoa's support.

According to the confidential charge, the commission apparently learned of the legal fees when Akana filled out a gifts disclosure statement last September that revealed about $22,000 she received in 2016 and 2017.

This was not the only time Kawananakoa has paid legal fees or costs of other disputes involving Native Hawaiians. She also hired lawyers for some of the people arrested during protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

Hawaii's gift law prohibits state officials and employees from accepting any gift when circumstances suggest that the gift might have been intended to influence the recipient. Even if Kawananakoa had no direct business with OHA, experts say such generosity could be intended to build a relationship with the trustee, which could be useful in other ways.

As a Native Hawaiian, Kawananakoa is also automatically an OHA beneficiary, and the charging document says the gifts were "due to Akana's status as an OHA trustee."

The issue of annual allowances at OHA being used for inappropriate personal expenses by multiple unnamed trustees was raised in a highly critical audit released earlier this year by the state auditor. It's not clear if other trustees will face ethics charges for their questionable purchases.

OHA Board Chair Colette Machado says she was aware that other trustees had met recently with the Ethics Commission staff, but she had not been contacted or charged.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Daniel Gluck said he could not comment on any pending complaint or investigation, but said the initial charge in any ethics investigation can come from the public, and agency or the commission itself.

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