What do City Council candidate Rich Turbin and supermodel Kathy Ireland have in common? The same group of Oahu residents claims they’re both breaking the law. And that’s just the beginning.

It’s a dispute that began long before Rich Turbin announced he wanted to represent District 4. But with something to lose – an election in less than two weeks – Turbin says it’s time to set the record straight. That’s what his naysayers say they want, too.

Neighborhood activists on Oahu insist they have proof that Turbin rents his Kahala and Haleiwa properties illegally, and Turbin is so upset by their claims that he’s filed a police report. He says they’re attempting to ruin his reputation and keep him out of office.

The police say there’s nothing to investigate.

“He filed what we call a miscellaneous pub,” said Honolulu Police Officer Kawika Hallums. “It’s just for documentation purposes because there was no law suffered. He was just worried about a smear campaign.”

Turbin says advocates for stricter enforcement of rules limiting vacation rentals have been targeting him since he encouraged then-Councilmember Charles Djou to introduce a bill in 2008 to offer more short-term permits. Now that he wants Djou’s old job, those advocates are afraid he’ll resurrect a version of Djou’s bill. But Turbin says that’s a red herring.

“To put it nicely, false rumors are being spread,” Turbin said. “There’s really nothing more to say.”

But with a complex trail of documented claims on either side, there’s a lot more that’s being said. While Turbin and his wife, Rai Saint Chu, say they’re being set up by foes who want to make it look like they’ve violated the law, an incriminating paper trail has residents in some of Oahu’s poshest neighborhoods crying foul. City compliance officials say Turbin’s rental record is clean.

Suspicions and frustrations are running high. Each side claims the other is lying, with documentation to show for it.
Discerning the truth in this bizarre grassroots fight appears as complicated as the story itself.

On the Books

The debate over short-term vacation rentals on Oahu has been raging for decades. In the 1980s, residents of otherwise peaceful neighborhoods complained about a spike in short-term vacation rentals, and the raging parties, property damage and disruptive visitors that came with them.

Residents demanded better oversight of what appeared to be an unregulated subset of the tourism industry, and Honolulu officials heard the outcry. By the end of the decade, city lawmakers had issued permits for just a couple hundred Oahu residences to offer short-term rentals. For anyone without a permit, short-term renting was banned.

“It was a grandfather privilege for those exceptions,” said Mike Friedel of the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting’s Code Compliance branch. “Those people were given the opportunity to apply for a (non-conforming use certificate, or NUC) that allowed them to conduct short-term rentals.”

Since then, only longer term rentals — more than 30 days — are allowed for those without NUCs. But the stricter regulations didn’t stop people from renting their homes for shorter spans, and complaints about non-compliance have intensified in recent years. Officials estimate there could be thousands of illegally operated vacation rentals islandwide.

Groups like Keep it Kailua, Save Our Neighborhoods and pockets of neighborhood board members in Kailua, Kahala and Hawaii Kai convened to fight for stricter enforcement. Turbin said those groups have targeted him ever since he proposed allowing more permits for short-term rentals as a way to generate revenue for the city in 2008. He said since the late 1980s, many of the owners of properties given NUCs have stopped operating, and the city ought to consider doling out more short-term permits.

“I went to (Congressman) Charles Djou with this idea,” Turbin said. “I had the idea of saying let’s issue new permits, let’s raise the fees so there would be enough money to hire dedicated investigators to investigate the illegal ‘B&Bs,’ so it could actually be policed rather than having everyone stick their head in the sand. Logical? Yes.”

Turbin said Djou — who was a Honolulu City Council member at the time — liked his idea, and introduced a measure to allow more short-term rental permits.

That’s when things began to get ugly.

Turbin said his Kahala neighbors rallied against him. They created an interactive group to study the issue, and prohibited his wife from joining.

“Because I thought of the idea for more permits, and Rai wanted to open it up to more permits, we became public enemies No. 1,” Turbin said. “They would have their meetings and not tell Rai about them. They were pretty mean to her. They shut her out. They acted in a pretty nasty way.”

Widespread opposition stopped the bill, and at least one other like it, from passing. But the debate hasn’t quieted.

Digital Paper Trail

If anything, the bad-mouthing of Turbin buzzing through neighborhood board circles is getting louder. That’s at least in part due to a packet of documents being passed around by those who believe Turbin is lying.

The irony is that the “smoking gun” document was obtained by a man who lied about his identity to get it.

That man, Don Bremner, said he can’t remember exactly when he got word that Turbin might be renting his properties illegally. Bremner, a former leader of the Keep it Kailua neighborhood group, now lives in Washington state, but is in close contact with those who believe they have evidence that condemns Turbin.

Bremner and others regularly scoured vacation rental websites for evidence of rental wrongdoing. They matched photos of Turbin’s properties to advertisements for short-term rentals.

“I heard about Turbin owning ‘B&Bs’ from my friend who’s on the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board,” said Jeannine Johnson, a Niu Valley resident who chairs the Kalani Iki Neighborhood Board’s Legislative Sub-Committee. “These websites showed these unlicensed B&Bs. I verified it myself, that these were Turbin’s properties, because I used to work with a Realtor so I could confirm that he owned them.”

Johnson said there are huge problems with short-term rentals in her neighborhood, including at least two properties owned by supermodel Kathy Ireland, where she complains frequent parties eliminate parking spaces for residents and keep people awake late at night. A spokesman for Ireland said they’d never before heard such allegations.

“Both of her homes have been rented on a longterm basis to family members in Hawaii on Oahu, when she’s not using them herself or gifting them to friends of hers,” said Stephen Roseberry, who is president of Kathy Ireland Worldwide. “She does a lot of nonprofit stuff. There are many events, occasions, that she opens the houses, and Kathy is there a great deal. I don’t know what this is, what they’re talking about.”

City compliance staffer Friedel echoed Roseberry.

“I don’t have any awareness of any citations against Kathy Ireland,” Friedel said.

In communities with vocal skeptics about some of its wealthiest property owners, Turbin also has his supporters.

“I’m convinced he absolutely doesn’t have any short-term bed-and-breakfast properties,” said Greg Knudsen, chair of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board. “Rich contacted a lot of folks he knows who are active in the ‘B&B’ debate. They still disagree with him. It’s legitimate for them to chase down any conflict of information, but I think he’s being truthful. If this is politically based, it’s not very good.”

Johnson said her skepticism about Turbin has nothing to do with his opponent, Stanley Chang, who edged Turbin in the primary election. But it’s also true that Chang has taken a more conservative approach to the rental permitting issue. In a Civil Beat questionnaire, Chang wrote that the city must first work on better enforcement before discussing a change to the law. In Turbin’s response, he wrote that the City Council should respect concerns from those who “may not be ready for new B&B permits.” Johnson said Turbin looked her in the eye at a neighborhood board meeting, and said he didn’t support changes to permitting law. She’s convinced that’s disingenuous.

“Do we really want somebody as councilor who lies? That doesn’t bode well,” Johnson said. “All of us, my friends who deal with neighborhood boards, we are very scared now that he’s going to get in, and it’s going to be legalization of all these ‘B&Bs’ and we will have the same problems we’ve had all these years but it will be 10 times or 100 times worse. If he does support it, he should go ahead and say it.”

Turbin said he realizes that his opponents are worried he’d support a change to city law regarding short-term rentals, something he said he still thinks could work in areas where residents support the change.

“I’ve always been a community neighborhood advocate,” Turbin said. “I’ve said from the beginning they should not operate in neighborhoods that don’t want them. I think maybe the North Shore, maybe around the university, maybe around BYU would work. I mean there are appropriate places.”

In addition to filing a formal complaint about the properties Ireland owns in her neighborhood, Johnson has been closely involved with tracking Turbin’s properties.

That has not been easy.

Dream Properties

The websites Johnson references have been unreliable — weeks ago they were online, last week they weren’t, at press time they were live once again — but she and others who share her concerns have circulated PDF versions saved before those sites were dismantled. The sites show two of the properties Turbin owns, one in Kahala and one on the North Shore.

Photos show modestly decorated properties in extraordinary locations with the promise of dreamy views of the Pacific Ocean, buttery trade winds and all of Hawaii’s tropical splendor. The Kahala property is described as an “upscale home away from home,” built in 2000, and situated on the property of a “larger main house occupied by owners who are rarely home.”

The Haleiwa house — nicknamed Banzai Hale for its proximity to the world famous Pipeline surf break — is described as a four-bedroom, three-bathroom beachfront property built in the early 1990s. According to the description on luxuryvacationhomes.com, Banzai Hale is “one of the better North Shore properties currently offered as a rental,” with one king-sized bed and three queen-sized beds, two covered oceanfront lanais and a flat-screen television.

Turbin said the properties described are his, but the websites featuring them aren’t. He said many websites lift descriptions of desirable rental properties as a way to peak renters’ interest, before steering them to less luxurious properties they’re offering as rentals.

“We don’t have any control over that,” Turbin said. “It’s Internet piracy. It’s like a used car lot saying we’ll sell you a 2009 corvette for $15,000, and then you go down there and there’s no such car. They put it on their website as saying this property’s available but it’s not available.”

In a call to Luxury Vacation Homes, the person who answered the phone – who declined to give her name – said she does rent Banzai Hale, and has worked with Turbin, which he denies.

“I’ve never heard of them and we don’t work with them,” Turbin said. “Frankly, it’s rare if ever that any of those real estate companies send us a tenant.”

Banzai Hale was described with much of the same language on another site, beach-house-hawaii.com, with a nightly rate of $550 and a minimum stay of “5 Nights to one month.” Turbin said that’s proof the site was created by someone unauthorized to offer the property.

“Any site that shows anything other than a clear month minimum is bogus,” Turbin said. “We’ve tried to scrub those off but it’s really impossible. It’s not websites that we have any control over.”

But a domain name registry suggests otherwise.

A Tangled Web

Records show beach-house-hawaii.com was registered to Turbin’s wife, Rai Saint Chu. Records show it was created in November 1997, and expires in November 2010. The address listed with the registrant is 737 Bishop Street, Suite 2730, which is the mailing address for Turbin and Chu’s Honolulu law firm. They are both personal injury lawyers, and they jointly run their Turbin Chu law practice, but Chu has handled much of the business in renting their properties. She said she created the website, but not the five-day minimum listing.

“I started to do a website, beachhousehawaii.com, but it was still at the editing stage,” Chu said. “I wanted it to say minimum 30 days but it never got implemented.”

Chu said she was working with a local web-design company called Empowered Internet, and that someone on their end must have typed in the line about a five-night minimum stay. She said she can’t remember the name of the person she asked to make the changes, and the company is no longer in business.

“It was several people I worked with and I can’t recall,” Chu said. “It took forever from step to step, and I sent them the edits and they never, never made it,” Chu said.

Chu said the web designers must have arbitrarily picked the minimum-stay information, but the company’s former president said that doesn’t jibe with the way Empowered Internet did business.

“The client provided all of the content,” said Mario Nanguse, who was Empowered Internet’s co-founder and president, and now works at The Resort Group in Honolulu. “People provided the content and we just posted it.”

Chu said she was so frustrated that Empowered Internet wasn’t making changes that she photographed her computer screen showing the edits she was trying to make. The photo shows an editing screen of the beachhousehawaii website, with “30 nights’ rental agreement” listed as the minimum stay. Chu said she took the photograph in 2007, though there’s no way to verify it.

“I took the picture because it was taking so long for them to change the website, so at least now I have the draft,” Chu wrote in an e-mail. “I did it to show the boss of the company that it took so long and never done. The boss acknowledged it was a mess up on their part.”

Nanguse said that wasn’t the case.

“It’s been a long time, but I think when (Chu) got in touch, she was working with the graphic designer,” Nanguse said. “We would do the design part and we set it up so that after some training, she would be able to do changes.”

Empowered Internet has since been purchased by another company, and neither Nanguse nor Chu have records of what content was submitted for online publication. Online, Chu is listed as the site’s administrative and technical contact.

She’s also been active in the discussion about vacation rentals on Oahu. In October 2008, Chu testified in support of the measure regarding short-term rentals that her husband asked the City Council to pass.

“Property owners lose control of long term tenants, whereas short term tenants have to declare who is coming, sign contracts re their conduct, have only their suitcase, have one rental car, do not know people for parties, do not bring pets, do not nail things on the wall and do not bring drugs on to the property,” Chu wrote. “We have had horror stories with long term tenants, who bring their dogs, extra cars / boats and invite customers … on to the property, as well as bring additional people to live on the property to help pay the rent.”

Turbin said the website his wife registered actually reflects them taking control of their properties to ensure they were managed legally.

“Over a 10 year period, at the time that rental agents were managing it, we cannot say with absolute certainty that they never rented it out for less than 30 days,” Turbin said. “But we do know that three years ago, Rai took it over and said, ‘I am going to be managing it to make sure our policy is complied with. She’s got control over it.’”

The “Smoking Gun?”

The matter came to a head earlier this year when Bremner, the former Keep it Kailua leader, secured a rental agreement for Banzai Hale that he says proves that Turbin rents short term.

Chu and Turbin said the only time anyone stays in their property for shorter than the required 30 days is when they lend it out to charitable organizations, free of charge.

“We give it out for charity a lot, we often auction it,” Turbin said. “We’ve given it out to schools for charity events, the domestic abuse hotline, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, things like that. I doubt the accusers could say anything as positive with their properties.”

Bremner wanted to test that for himself.

So he used a fake name and a fake e-mail address to request information about renting Banzai Hale for 13 nights. He contacted Luxury Vacation Homes — the agency with which Turbin said he had never worked — claiming to be someone named Jon Sturdivant.

According to e-mail records provided by Bremner, Robin Lloyd of Luxury Vacation Homes responded on May 14, writing:

“Aloha Jon,
Yes, Banzai Hale is showing open for May 28th to June 10th. Let me just send a quick email to the homeowner to make certain we can book it at $550/night.

Bremner – again posing as “Jon Sturdivant,” – followed up with another e-mail the next day, writing that he was “anxiously awaiting,” confirmation on the rental. That afternoon, Llyod again responded:

“Yes, we can have the dates May 28-June 10th ! I will get you a contract by Sunday afternoon.

The contract Bremner said Lloyd provided detailed a 13-night stay at $550 per night. Each page of the document is headed with, “STURDIVANT– BANZAI HALE 05/28/10-06/10/10”

In the fine print, there’s a reference to the law requiring longer stays:

“In accordance with City and County of Honolulu zoning regulations, Banzai Hale is being set aside for your exclusive use for a period of 30 days commencing on 5/10/10 and ending on 6/10/10. The total rental and tax charges are calculated on a per diem rate based upon providing the included services for your stated dates of actual occupancy of Banzai Hale with arrival on 5/28/10 and departure on 6/10/10.”

The contract goes on to explain that, as long as nobody else rents the property during that 30-day period, the shorter rental is allowed. Friedel, of the city’s compliance branch, said there’s nothing legal about such an arrangement.

“Our attorneys have told us about this, when someone takes the 30-or-more-days contract but ‘leaves early,’ and rents it for 15 days,” Friedel said. “They can’t do that. It’s not legal. And they’re doing it all the time. They’re lying through their teeth, and it what makes enforcement so difficult. They can produce a copy of a lease agreement for more than 30 days. Or the owner will say to the inspector, ‘No, this is my family or relatives, they’re just staying here,’ or, ‘There’s no compensation! This is rent free.’”

In his city database, Friedel looked up the addresses attached to Turbin’s Kahala and Haleiwa properties.

“I don’t see any permit for a short-term rental, but I don’t see any citations either,” Friedel said. “No complaints or anything.”

Larry Bartley, executive director of the group Save Oahu’s Neighborhoods, calls the 13-night contract Bremner obtained the “smoking gun” implicating Turbin and Chu.

“He didn’t sign it, but Don Bremner actually went to the trouble of getting that contract,” Bartley said. “That was from Turbin’s address. They’re offering that for 13 nights. Period.”

When asked about the contract, Turbin reiterated he’d never heard of Luxury Vacation Homes, and said he couldn’t recall who rented the house six months ago.

“May 28 to June 10? I seriously doubt it,” Turbin said. “May 28 to June 10, off the top of my head, would seem like a bogus contract. By the way, I should point out that President Obama stays at a house for a two-week period every year in Kailua.”

Turbin said he’d ask his wife, who handles their property rentals more closely.

“Our records show that during that period of time, mother’s day weekend, somebody stayed there without charge,” Turbin said in a subsequent conversation. “That was prearranged, rent free.”

But mother’s day weekend was Friday, May 7 – Sunday, May 9, and not within the timeframe detailed in the contract.

“Maybe my wife knows about this, and I can ask her,” Turbin said. “But it certainly sounds like it’s bogus. Off the top of my head.”

Chu blamed the contract’s creation on her and Turbin’s “enemies.” She acknowledged she had worked with Luxury Vacation Homes in the past, but only contacted the agency after seeing a copy of the Sturdivant contract.

“Luxury Vacation Homes, I haven’t had any dealings with them for maybe five years,” Chu said in a phone conversation. “Maybe they might have asked me about availability for the next month or the next two months. She sometimes says, ‘What’s your availability for the next two months?’ Since it was open, I decided to do an exchange with somebody for mother’s day weekend. I remember that was the only occupant there for the month of May. I think that’s that.”

Dirty Tactics

But Chu followed up with Civil Beat via e-mail, writing to reiterate how “troubling” the “obvious set-up” was, to express concern over suspicious neighbors spying on her and Turbin, and to make the case that the situation wasn’t newsworthy.

“This subject is not significant,” Chu wrote. “We don’t think there is a story here, except the dirty tactics of someone trying to set us up with the false premises to enter a contract. Rich informed you that the police is investigating.”

“It’s an attempted falsification of a legal contract,” Turbin said. “It’s a criminal act.”

Police don’t characterize it that way. The record Turbin filed is a way to put his side of the story on the record, even if he can’t convince his critics.

While Turbin insists he and his wife have always complied with zoning laws, he also defends those who haven’t.

“The rabid anti-‘B&B’ people say people who rent out for less than 30 days are criminals,” Turbin said. “They are not. It’s like a violation of building code. It’s like having too much trash on your lawn. When these fanatics start saying, ‘Oh, these people are criminals,’ they’re not criminals. Again, though, in our case, there were never any complaints, and never any violations.”

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