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A $136 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne for the publisher of Honolulu’s only daily newspaper. An $836 dinner with that same publisher and his wife at Alan Wong’s.

Forty-seven dollars for drinks at the Mai Tai Bar with a major newspaper’s editorial page editor. A $162 dinner in Fresno, Calif., with two of its top sports reporters.

One-hundred sixty dollars just for the tip on a dinner with a Hawaii lawmaker and his wife at a Las Vegas casino. An invitation for a state senator and his wife to the Aloha Stadium press box and its $500 catered buffet. A $41 lunch with U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono‘s press secretary at Kincaid’s Restaurant.

Those are some of the details that emerge from Civil Beat’s analysis of nearly five years of University of Hawaii Athletics Department expense reports that were reimbursed by the UH Foundation.

The foundation is supported by tax-deductible private donations. In fiscal year 2012, more than $6.9 million in foundation money was designated for the University of Hawaii at Manoa athletics department, about $1.5 million more than in the previous fiscal year.

Most of the receipts were submitted by Jim Donovan, who was athletics director beginning in 2008 until his dismissal this summer midway through the last year of his five-year contract. Donovan was demoted to another job in the aftermath of the blown Stevie Wonder benefit concert.

As part of his duties, Donovan traveled frequently and took many people out for dinner and drinks, most of them people in the business of college sports.

But, as noted above, he also entertained important political and media figures. The figures referred to above are, respectively, Honolulu Star-Advertiser Dennis Francis, then-Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial page editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding, sports reporters Ferd Lewis and Stephen Tsai, state Rep. Mark Takai, then-state Sen. Norman Sakamoto and Hirono’s press secretary Marvin Buenconsejo.

The expense reports reveal a cozy relationship between UH athletics and two groups that have intimate and sometimes contentious relations with the department.

Takai, for example, is a leading voice calling for the resignation of UH President M.R.C. Greenwood in light of the Wonder concert mess, while veteran reporter Lewis has led the Star-Advertiser’s investigation into the matter.

“Especially for journalists, there is no free lunch,” said Gerald Kato, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii. “Basically, the obligation of the journalist is to be independent, and to maintain not only the reality of independence but also the appearance.”

Kato continued: “I know most of these guys, and I am sure that they did not accept with the thought that they can be bought in some way. But the mere fact that it comes out now that they are enjoying a meal and drinks with the athletics director and that it is on Donovan’s tab, it does create the appearance of conflict.”

Frank Bridgewater, Star-Advertiser editor and vice president, said Thursday his reporters follow the same rules that all journalists do, “which is they try to pay their share at the time, and if for some reason they are not able to make a payment, they repay that meal by taking — in this case, the athletics director — out for a dinner at a later date. So, it is not one-sided.”

Bridgewater said the best way to deal with any perception of conflict is to be transparent as possible.

“I also think we expect reporters to have sources, to work with them and get beyond the news conference and the press release,” he said. “I was reviewing the New York Times policy over the last few days, and having sources is an essential skill. That comes outside of normal business hours and seeing them for drinks and dinner — as long as you make clear it’s business versus social. And you have to trust reporters to keep an arm’s-length distance.”

Selective Reporting

The athletics department’s expense reports were obtained through an open-records request made in August by the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now, the newspaper’s media partner.

The records were released Tuesday, and in its article Wednesday the Star-Advertiser reported that Donovan and his staff spent more than $800,000 in private donations on expenditures that Donovan and others said “were designed to further the department’s mission.”

Near the end of the article it was noted that Donovan used the money to take sports journalists “including Star-Advertiser staff members, to lunches, dinners or for drinks or pupus.”

The article did not mention the names of the staff members, however, nor the champagne and the Alan Wong’s dinner. The Hawaii News Now report that aired Tuesday and was updated for Wednesday, meanwhile, did not name the journalists either, nor Francis, though it did report about the bubbly:

Donovan was reimbursed for a $136 Costco purchase of a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne for a business executive that sources said is indicative of a double standard because other UH officials who’ve put through receipts for alcohol purchases as gifts have had them rejected by UH Foundation fiscal managers.

KHON, however, did name Francis by name in its Wednesday report, as did KITV in its own report Wednesday. (Civil Beat is a media partner with KITV.)

$505 Dinner At Alan Wong’s

Elected officials are required to abide by specific guidelines regarding ethics and campaign spending, and they must disclose gifts. When they don’t, state and county agencies and the media often make the infractions public.

It is much more rare to see the names of publishers, editors, reporters and columnists in the news, because matters involving ethics and gifts are usually handled internally.

It’s clear from some of Donovan’s expense reimbursement requests that he was trying to curry favor with the media.

For example, Donovan wrote on the receipt for a dinner he had with Lewis and Tsai at Chevy’s Fresh Mix in Reno in 2009 that the dinner was to discuss UH athletics department issues “and maintain good rapport/relationships w/ media.”

In his expense report for the champagne, which was purchased from the Iwilei Costco in August 2010, Donovan said the bottle was given to Francis as a gift for agreeing to continue corporate sponsorship with the athletics department. It came not long after the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin were combined into one newspaper.

“Continued support helps to ensure UHAD receives much needed trade and other marketing benefits to help with promotion of UHAD sports,” Donovan wrote.

The $837 dinner at Alan Wong’s, held in July 2011, was for Donovan, his wife Tracy Orillo-Donovan and Francis and his wife Marjorie “in appreciation of sponsorship and increased support and to continue good relations with Hawaii’s only major newspaper.”

The UH Foundation reimbursed $505 of the Alan Wong’s bill, with Donovan paying for the alcohol — including $175 for a bottle and a half of 2007 Opus One wine — out of his own pocket.

The foundation allows alcohol expenditures, according to a foundation statement, “if the alcohol consumption is in conjunction with a bona fide activity that supports the University.”

Only a handful of other athletics department expenditures uncovered by Civil Beat, which are listed below, are in the same financial range as the Alan Wong’s dinner. Most are well under under $200, including many of the meals and cocktails for reporters.

Bridgewater, the Star-Advertiser editor, said the newspaper’s sports reporters complete their own business expenses after returning from covering UH games on the mainland, and that a staff controller examines the reports closely and “kicks them back if something is missing.”

Bridgewater said reporters like Lewis and Tsai had reciprocated payments to Donovan.

But Kato from UH wonders why Donovan, who was paid $240,000 as athletic director, didn’t just pick up the tab himself more often.

“What bothers me is that if they reciprocate, then in effect they should have reciprocated with UH foundation,” he said. Donovan “claims it was all part of athletic department business, and that they are part of a business transaction. Journalists need to be careful about the kind of relationships they have. In the end, are you willing to face up to public disclosure of this information?”

Kato added, “I think Ferd and those guys, they genuinely like Donovan. But they need to consider right now about having them cover an event that directly involves Donovan, and covering it in a very aggressive way. These documents released by the foundation … (show) Donovan using a lot of money to buy gifts for the reporters now covering this story.”

Donovan Expense Report Highlights

2008
• Lunch at The Pineapple Room ($63.45) with Dennis Francis, president of Honolulu Star-Bulletin and MidWeek.
• Dinner at Olive Garden ($84.89) with Honolulu Advertiser reporters Steven Tsai and Ferd Lewis.
• Lunch at Chili’s Kahala ($41.35) with Honolulu Star-Bulletin sports editor Paul Arnett and reporter Dave Reardon.
• Lunch at Kincaid’s Restaurant ($41.35) with Marvin Buenconsejo, press secretary for Mazie Hirono.
• Aloha Stadium press box buffet ($500) UH vs. LA Tech hospitality guest list includes Sen. Norman Sakamoto and wife.
• Aloha Stadium press box buffet ($500) UH vs. Nevada hospitality guest includes Rep. Mark Takai and guest.
• Dinner at Famous Dave’s ($169.29) in Fresno, Calif., with Lewis, Tsai and others.
• Dinner at The State Line ($296.70) in El Paso, Texas, with Lewis and others.

2009
• Drinks at Ige’s Restaurant ($72.08) with Takai and others.
• Drinks at Mai Tai Bar ($47.47) with Jeanne Mariana-Belding.
• Drinks at Bar Louie ($157.81) in Anaheim, Calif., with “Tsaiko’s” (Honolulu Advertiser bloggers and supporters of UH athletics).
• Breakfast at Zippy’s ($22.06) with Lee Webber, Honolulu Advertiser president.
• Lunch at Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch and Crab ($132.15) with Advertiser reporter Jason Kaneshiro and others.
• Drinks at Main Street Station Hotel & Casino ($54.71) in Las Vegas with Lewis, Tsai and Advertiser reporter Leila Wai.
• A $160 tip for a $823.89 dinner at Redwood Grill California Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas with Takai, his wife and others.
• Drinks at Grand Sierra Resort ($21.85) in Reno with Lewis.

2010
• Dinner at Sam’s Town Casino Hotel’s William B’s Steakhouse ($143.07) in Shreveport, La., with Tsai.
• Lunch at Gordon Biersch ($465.94) with Reardon, Kaneshiro and others.

2011
• Drinks at Henry Loui’s Barbecued Ribs, Chicken & Seafood ($66.02) with Reardon and Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Ann Miller.

2012
• Pupus, drinks and parking at Side Street Inn in Kapahulu ($136) for meeting with Tim McBroom, special assistant to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, and others.

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