- Special Projects
You know that nagging sense that something important is just out of reach?
The feeling is a distant cousin to a forgotten name on the tip of your tongue, only more insistent. Instead of fading it gets stronger with time. It’ll keep you up at night. Reporters know it all too well.
I swear there’s more to this story.
Hard to believe it was two years ago this week that we first broke the news of an investigation into the city’s use of federal funds. I remember telling my editors that it seemed big, huge even.
Since then, Civil Beat reported and wrote dozens of stories about the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s investigation into a senior center that the city flooded with millions of dollars in federal grants over the past decade.
But there always seemed to be more to the story.
As Civil Beat’s Nick Grube reported Monday, HUD took a step that everyone involved in the investigation has long said could be avoided. The agency called for Honolulu to repay $8 million in grants that it had funneled to ORI Anuenue Hale over the years.
That final report has been a long time coming.
When I first started covering the story, city and federal officials — along with staffers at ORI — encouraged me to back off.
This is just routine monitoring.
Nothing is conclusive.
We’re looking into it.
We’ll keep you posted.
Just be patient.
But years of document-driven reporting told a different story.
We obtained a decade of public records to find out what ORI said it would do with federal funds. We scoured campaign finance documents and property records. I visited the Wahiawa senior center on multiple occasions. We combed through piles of court documents and tax records.
Even after publishing dozens of articles about our findings, that nagging feeling persisted, and in large part because there seemed to be no one in Honolulu who could explain how the city had gotten into this mess.
When I started asking questions about HUD’s investigation, former Mayor Peter Carlisle — still relatively new in office — deferred to those with institutional knowledge around Honolulu Hale.
He’s still blaming the problem on his predecessors. In a statement sent to news media Tuesday, he said:
“The audit by HUD identified numerous problems with ORI that predated my administration by many years. HUD’s concerns were wholly justified. When HUD informed us in 2011 that HUD could recoup $7.9 million in CDBG funds, our response was to immediately cooperate to the fullest extent possible with HUD and develop a workout plan to bring ORI into compliance.”
But Carlisle also sidestepped why more than $1 million in loans to ORI were forgiven under his watch.
“The loans that were forgiven were part of old loans that had been on the books since the 1990s and should have been grants in the first place. My campaign has never received nor accepted any contributions from ORI or its owner Susanna Cheung.”
He’s not the first to sidestep. The people with institutional knowledge to whom he referred me were also adept at brushing away questions.
Perhaps most notably tight-lipped was City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who served as acting director of the Community Services Department in charge of administering the grants before he was elected. He repeatedly refused to talk about ORI, telling me it’d be inappropriate to comment on his previous role. But the then-new community services director, Sam Moku, said he couldn’t speak to what went on in the department before his tenure.
Martin — a public official who has said he’d like to run for mayor some day — is still refusing to answer questions. Martin told Civil Beat in a statement Tuesday that city attorneys asked him “to refrain from making any public statements” about the matter.
As we reported in August 2011, Martin and other City Council members on the Budget Committee “tossed softball after softball [questions] to both ORI Anuenue Hale and the Carlisle administration department heads overseeing the city’s response to the federal probe.”
Two years later, basic and essential questions of government accountability remain unanswered:
How is the government spending the public’s money?
Is the decision-making process transparent and clear to the public?
These questions have come up before at Honolulu Hale, which has for years been criticized of nurturing a pay-to-play culture and operating in many ways secretly. How the city responds to this investigation — and especially how it communicates with the public about the situation — will shed light on whether that reputation is deserved.
Many of HUD’s findings detailed in yesterday’s letter are shocking. The investigation finds that — despite what city officials said — Honolulu didn’t appear to take HUD’s allegations seriously and may have actively tried to interfere with the investigation.
But here’s the line that sticks with me the most:
Missing records and the city’s “decision to prevent HUD’s unencumbered review” of records “raises concerns about the integrity of the City’s ORI records and the City’s overall recordkeeping system.”
I swear there’s more to this story.
Reporter Adrienne LaFrance covered Honolulu Hale for three years and now works as a national reporter for Digital First Media in New York City.
If you want to begin to catch up on the story of ORI and the city’s management of CDBG money, here’s your reading list: