- Special Projects
On a recent weekday morning at ORI Anuenue Hale, Inc., the sprawling nonprofit complex was like a ghost town. One man shuffled back and forth outside of the wellness center, getting some exercise in the country air. Indoors, four seniors were seated in a mostly-vacant room, rows of empty chairs stretching out behind them.
The scene was consistent with what federal investigators described in a May report to the city raising concerns that ORI’s wellness center for seniors was being underutilized.
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development probe found that the nonprofit overstated how many clients it served, and was not meeting eligibility standards for the millions of dollars in grant money it has received. Investigators also reported that ORI executives were uncooperative, refusing to provide the records that a federal investigator requested, and that the nonprofit violated other eligibility requirements for the federal grants it has received.
The city of Honolulu, which was blamed in the report for failing to monitor ORI, will have to return $7.9 million to the federal government if it does not take “immediate corrective action” outlined in the report.
ORI executives have refused Civil Beat’s requests for interviews, but issued this statement via a spokesman: “We were surprised to see HUD’s claims in the news and are working with the city to determine the basis of those claims.”
This is not the first time that Susanna Cheung, ORI’s founder, has been accused of refusing to share records in response to a valid request from an agency with standing to seek them.
In 2005, the watchdog group Hawaii Disability Rights Center tried to access ORI records after it received a complaint of abuse at the center. ORI refused to provide the records, citing client confidentiality — the same argument it’s making in refusing HUD’s requests.
The three-year long legal battle that ensued culminated with a federal court order for ORI to provide the records to the watchdog group.
“That was a federal court order, so after that there was no dispute,” said John Dellera, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center.
Dellera joined the center after the legal fight, but says he reviewed the records when he arrived.
“There was a lot of controversy based upon the requests for investigation by my agency, and the reluctance ORI had in giving us access,” Dellera said. “The protection and the confidentiality of medical information and mental health information, it’s a very sensitive topic. I understand the position of private caregivers, but where we get a complaint of abuse, we have rights under both federal and state law to access those records.”
The ORI complex is in the country, adjacent to the Dole Plantation. ORI includes Helemano Plantation, the area where Dellera says 78 people with intellectual challenges live and work. That was the area that the Hawaii Disability Rights Center fought to access.
Disabled residents of the adjacent Helemano Village are trained to work as cashiers, custodians, and in food service and other jobs in the gift shop, bakery and other areas of the plantation.
The HUD probe centers on a different area of the complex, the Wellness Center and a neighborhood-like collective of cabins and an events pavilion, known as Camp Pineapple 808. Those areas of ORI are funded by the Community Development Block Grant program, and are more recent additions to the ORI site. HUD’s investigation is part of its routine monitoring of grants. It opted to examine ORI because HUD gave it more CDBG money than any other Hawaii program.
Cheung founded the nonprofit ORI, then-called Opportunities for the Retarded, in 1982. Helemano Planation opened two years later. After years of planning in the past decade, Cheung expanded the complex to its current 40 acres. Construction of the Wellness Center for seniors and Camp Pineapple 808 was completed in 2010.
Camp Pineapple 808 appeared deserted when Civil Beat visited. Flowers bloom in gardens across the property, fences and other infrastructure are dusted with the red dirt of the North Shore. Pineapple fields stretch out in the distance.
HUD reported two potential usage violations of the camp, based on outside groups using it for scheduled events. A brochure for the camp says it can be rented for weddings and graduations, parties, banquets, corporate events, family reunions and more.
The most recent available tax records, from 2009, show ORI’s net worth was nearly $16 million, including about $1.3 million in cash or cash equivalents. ORI characterized its assets as follows:
But the IRS form 990 also shows the nonprofit had increased its spending by nearly 50 percent, from $2.1 million in 2008 to $3.1 million in 2009.
Because ORI has refused Civil Beat’s interview requests, it’s not clear how many people work at the complex. Tax records from 2009 show some of its biggest expenses from that year were as follows:
Last last year, outgoing Community Services Director Ernie Martin sent a memo to the city’s budget director canceling $1.2 million in city loans to ORI. Now Martin is a member of the Honolulu City Council and next month he’s expected to become its chairman.
An administrator in the Community Services Department explained that the loans were from the 1990s, and the city was moving to convert a number of old loans into grants for several nonprofits on Oahu. Martin says he inherited the move to forgive ORI’s loans from Debbie Morikawa, who served as director of Community Services before him.
“It was under Debbie’s (direction) but it was not only Debbie who initiated that,” Martin told Civil Beat on Monday. “It was under the request of ORI, they made a request if the city would consider forgiving that loan — or, it’s not really a loan forgiveness but actually converting the loan to a grant — and with that conversion, they’re still obligated to meet certain CDBG conditions.”
But HUD found that ORI is not actually meeting those CDBG conditions. Martin acknowledges his former department may not have monitored ORI as closely as it should have.
“They probably did not do the more deeper level of monitoring that HUD did, with regards to viewing participant files, checking programs and services,” Martin said. “Normally it’s a two-step process: The initial monitoring that’s done and then what you call post-development monitoring, which is monitoring that’s done after the project has completed construction, but still has CDBG obligations. I’m not sure if the city had done that level of monitoring yet. I guess based on these findings, they will be doing it, probably more strictly and a higher priority for them.”
He said he knows Cheung “very well,” and called her “very passionate” and “very feisty.”
“ORI, it’s been driven by Susanna because of her dynamic personality and her passion for that population,” Martin said. “I think that’s true for almost all nonprofits, it always starts with that one person who has the vision, the passion and the commitment. They never do it for their own personal gain.”
Not only is ORI in Martin’s City Council district, Cheung was also one of his political supporters. Cheung gave $1,000 to Martin’s campaign for City Council in December 2009 and another $200 in the weeks leading up to the November 2010 election.
Cheung is active in politics. In addition to supporting Martin’s campaign for council, she gave tens of thousands of dollars to local campaigns in the past decade.
Some of Cheung’s recent donations include:
She has donated to former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, as well as former City Council members Rod Tam, Donovan Dela Cruz and Gary Okina.
Campaign filings list Cheung’s address as a multimillion-dollar Kahala home. As of 2009, she earned $42,000 a year for 20 hours of work each week as president of ORI. Volunteer board members that year included:
Cheung’s presence is everywhere in the lobby of the ORI Wellness Center. On the walls, there are framed accolades for “outstanding service” that she received from Hawaii lawmakers, and glowing newspaper articles about her contributions to the community.
But so far, she has been silent in the face of the federal claims against her organization. A spokesman says ORI is working to formulate a response to HUD’s findings, which it will send to the city.
In a brochure for her nonprofit beneath a cartoonish illustration of her complex are these words:
“It’s not how many people we have or how many acres we own. It’s individual accomplishments that count.”