The nomination of land chief William Aila Jr. has raised enough concerns that Senate Democrats will meet behind closed doors Wednesday to decide their next step.

The Majority Caucus will meet Wednesday morning at 11 a.m. for a half-hour to discuss Aila’s nomination to be the director of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, according to a meeting notice sent to 24 Senate Democrats that was obtained by Civil Beat.

Multiple senators with inside knowledge of the process, whom Civil Beat granted anonymity because they wouldn’t speak otherwise, said the meeting was called to determine whether to defer action on Aila or to vote Thursday as currently scheduled.

Sen. Clayton Hee, in an interview with Civil Beat, did little to dispel Capitol rumblings that he will seek a second delay when the Hawaii Legislature‘s one-week recess ends.

Asked if he could ask for a deferral on the floor, Hee said: “I could rise on a point of personal privilege and do that.”

And asked if he will indeed take that step Thursday, when Aila’s confirmation vote is on the Senate’s agenda, Hee responded: “It depends.” He did not elaborate.

Hee will make his case to fellow Democrats Wednesday why he believes the body should take more time to vet Aila. In the last week, he’s criticized the Water, Land and Housing Committee for its quick work on the nomination and raised questions about financial disclosures, aquarium fish collection and Native Hawaiian issues.

A questionnaire shows the committee did ask Aila tough questions about objectivity regarding military matters, bias against Kaena Point fishermen and potential burials uncovered by the Honolulu rail project. Those questions were not raised in public when Aila sailed through committee Feb. 12.

The questionnaire and Aila’s answers were sent to all senators Monday by Water, Land and Housing Committee Char Donovan Dela Cruz in response to Hee’s testy e-mail inquiry. Aila’s resume was also attached. Both were obtained by Civil Beat Tuesday and are embedded below:

Aquarium Fish Part of Confirmation Equation

On Tuesday, Hee hoped to press Aila on one of his concerns. He pushed Senate Bill 580 to the end of a hearing agenda in an effort to give the interim land chief time to come explain the department’s position.

In its original form, the bill would have banned aquarium fishing in state waters. Aila testified against it without disclosing that he held an aquarium fishing permit — one of the factors cited by Hee in criticism last week. Aila has since surrendered his commercial fishing license.

The bill has been amended to instead establish two new marine life conservation districts off of Maui. Aila provided written testimony but was unable to attend the hearing because he was at Lake Wilson dealing with a rapidly leaking reservoir, a DLNR spokeswoman said.

Despite Hee’s concerns, supporters have continued to push for Aila’s confirmation.

“While we understand and sympathize with the attention drawn to Mr. Aila’s failure to support comprehensive regulation of the aquarium fishing trade, Mr. Aila has a proven capacity to understand community concerns,” Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter Director Robert Harris said in a press release Tuesday. “We remain confident the environmental community can work with Mr. Aila to ensure these issues are resolved in the future.”

Leadership Aiming for Thursday

Earlier Tuesday — before the caucus meeting was announced — representatives for Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Senate President Shan Tsutsui said they hadn’t heard anything from Hee to give them reason to change their plans.

“In terms of our end, the governor is looking forward to William Aila being confirmed,” Abercrombie Press Secretary Donalyn Dela Cruz told Civil Beat. “At the moment, the governor is not too concerned.”

She said she expected Tsutsui would give the governor a warning if there was reason to be concerned, and said she wasn’t aware of any conversations between the two in recent days.

Asked if Tsutsui has had any conversations with Aila or Abercrombie about the confirmation, Tsutsui chief of staff Keira Kamiya said: “Not that I know of. I don’t know at this time. I know that there’s been a lot of discussion via e-mail and things going back and forth, but I don’t know that there’s been any decision or any official change in action in what’s going to happen right now. But there’s still time before Thursday.”

Asked about the prospects of a deferral, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz said he hopes Aila has been able to meet lawmakers one-by-one to address their concerns. (Here’s a list of the senators Aila has met with, obtained by Civil Beat.)

While Dela Cruz is ready to vote now, he said he takes the Senate’s advise-and-consent role seriously and would defer to his colleagues.

“If the will of the majority is to continue any type of investigation, then I would probably support the Senate leadership,” Dela Cruz told Civil Beat.

The caucus meeting Wednesday will give the Senate an opportunity to warn the Abercrombie administration and Aila’s family that they should not attend Thursday’s meeting if a deferral is expected.

“I would think out of common courtesy, I would want to let the nominee know,” Hee said.

Aila, through his spokeswoman, declined to comment on the status of his nomination.

Civil Beat’s Chad Blair contributed to this report.

About the Author