University of Hawaii officials were grilled for more than six hours Monday in a hearing that sought answers on a Stevie Wonder fundraising concert that never was.

At issue was $200,000 in university money wired to a Florida concert promoter this summer who hasn’t been heard from since, and how the UH handled the events leading up to the deal and the public-relations disaster that followed.

What school officials told lawmakers is that, while they didn’t handle things as best they could and will try to do better next time, they largely defended their actions. That included not keeping Jim Donovan on as athletic director but giving him a $200,000 job handling school marketing.

In their view — especially UH President M.R.C. Greenwood — the concert fiasco was a rare misstep for a university that, as she put it, “does a lot of good.”

What lawmakers told school officials, however, is that not only didn’t they handle things well — their constituents are outraged over the “Wonder blunder” — they didn’t follow policies, kept much of their actions behind closed doors and blurred proper lines of command. Demoting Donovan, they strongly implied, was not the right solution.

In their view — especially that of Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, chair of the newly formed Senate Special Committee on Accountability — what’s at stake is the fundamental operation and reputation of the state’s top institute of higher learning.

Civil Beat draws up talking points.

The Blame

While acknowledging the “crisis of confidence” that the concert fiasco has caused, Greenwood urged lawmakers to give the school more time to figure out what exactly happened. She said it has been forgotten that “this money was stolen from us, not by us.”

Greenwood said Donovan’s five-year contract as athletic director, which was to expire next March, was not going to be renewed, a decision for which she took responsibility. The reasons included, as she put it, “the WAC and Mac,” meaning the Western Athletic Conference that UH football is no longer part of and the former head football coach Greg McMackin, who accepted a $600,000 buyout deal in 2011 after a short and losing tenure.

But Kim and her committee repeatedly grilled Greenwood over a fact-finding report — all of the committee’s documents and testimony can be viewed here — asking about dates, conversations, emails and billing hours for public relations and legal fees. They questioned the legal counsel that UH had received and were upset over what appeared to be the mixing of the line between Greenwood’s purview and that of Tom Apple, the Manoa chancellor, and his immediate predecessor, Virginia Hinshaw.

Kim and company — Sens. Jill Tokuda, Les Ihara, Ron Kouchi and Sam Slom — also took Greenwood’s boss, the Board of Regents, to task. Most worrisome to them were indications that some regents went beyond their unpaid appointed role (a role that requires Senate confirmation) to interfere with hiring and firing decisions.

“There’s a lot of disgruntled people out there,” said Kim.

The Politics

Kim and Co. wanted to know if, as they had heard, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and other top elected officials had pressured UH to keep Donovan as AD. Greenwood did say that the governor expressed to her the concern she had received from Senate President Shan Tsutsui and House Speaker Calvin Say over what had happened. But Greenwood dismissed any notion that there was flagrant interference.

The administration issued a statement not much later from the governor:

I stated very clearly to President Greenwood that my sole concern was for fairness and even-handedness. I based this concern as the Governor as well as an alumnus and supporter of the University of Hawai’i. I also stressed that any and all decisions made in the wake of the concert failure ensure that all responsible parties be held to account.

Because it is an election year and because the university is a billion-dollar institution, politics is bound to taint any dispute that erupts. But Kim’s investigation is not election-driven per se. She and Tokuda, for example, have already been re-elected.

What is driving the investigation, it seems, is Hawaii’s love of football, which helps explain why UH has had a series of head coaches and ADs in a relatively short timespan and declining ticket revenues. In fact, there is a search on for another AD as we speak, the current coach is currently 1-2 in his first season and the department is deep in the red — hence the idea for a fundraising concert.

Greenwood told the lawmakers that football is “much more important” than any other program at universities across the country — something she warned was leading schools on to a “treacherous path” — and the result has largely been scandalous. But the warning seemed to fall on deaf ears.

The Reputations

UH isn’t just in the red for $200,000 for the concert and $200,000 for Donovan’s new gig.

There will also be the salary for a new athletic director — who would want that job? — and all the billable hours for the lawyers and PR work. Kim demanded that UH officials get her the figures as soon as possible, although it seems that expenses will only continue to accrue.

All in all, Greenwood handled herself fairly well in the hearing, repeatedly insisting that the UH has the authority to make its own decisions. She deserves credit for taking responsibility and apologizing, but she also frequently called the circumstance a “perfect storm,” suggesting that the concert mess was a one-off disaster.

Still, Greenwood showed some humility, admitting that she sometimes puts her foot in her mouth, and she said several times that she didn’t believe a public hearing was the place to discuss personnel matters.

As the hearing wore on, Greenwood seemed to tire — as did most folks in the room, especially when the AC was turned off — and seemed to mix up dates and a few other things. BOR Chair Eric Martinson, meanwhile, seemed cowed by Kim — and who wouldn’t be? She is relentless in her cross examination (that’s the only word for it) — and rarely satisfied with the answers she was hearing.

“I’m exasperated,” she said at one point.

The talk around the Capitol is that everyone else in the building brushes their teeth but Kim merely sharpens hers. The remark illustrates the fear that she instills in others, and she’s guilty of the occasional grandstanding. But Kim seems genuinely incensed by the UH matter, and she clearly had done her homework in preparing for the hearing. Few would disagree that her hearing has produced a lot of very remarkable (and embarrassing) information as well as some insights about what happened at the university and how it operates.

As for Donovan, the hearing was the first time the public had really heard from him since he was relieved of his duties. He said he was bewildered by what had happened, stunned at the UH press conference that announced his being placed on paid leave along with Stan Sheriff Center administrator Rich Sheriff, and dismayed that he was not given a contract renewal.

Donovan did not want to take the marketing job in Apple’s office, but he felt he had little choice. He also said he wasn’t sure whether the concert blunder was “a scam” or just a business deal gone bad. He was shocked to learn from Greenwood in Kim’s hearing that he was initially suspected of perhaps taking the concert money himself. And, he said, he had received an apology from the FBI (something that could not be confirmed).

“I really believe my reputaion was harmed by being placed on leave,” said Donovan. “I spent 25 to 30 years of my life trying to build up this university.”

Kim’s committee will continue its investigation into UH Oct. 2. Tokuda stressed several times that she hoped to hear from school officials on policy recommendations and changes, perhaps even legislation, that can be made as a result of what has been learned — “deliverables,” as she put it. Greenwood and Martinson welcomed that initiative.

Reputations may never fully be restored, but if any good can come of the concert debacle, it’s that the university and the regents can not only learn from what happened but find ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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