Gov. Neil Abercrombie, his deputy chief of staff and two security guards flew to Washington, D.C., last June to talk to congressmen and military leaders about Chamber of Commerce affairs and other interests.
The five-night trip cost Hawaii taxpayers $14,000.
The governor took a trip or two a week last summer on state business, traveling to the neighbor islands, mainland and Asia. State records show his five trips in June and six trips in July cost taxpayers approximately $27,000, including airfare, lodging, security detail and the expenses of accompanying staff members.
The D.C. trip was by far the most expensive, according to documents the governor’s office released under a public records request. Most of the cost was for airfare ($2,350 for the governor to fly first class) and three rooms at the Hilton at $230 per night.
His deputy chief of staff, Blake Oshiro, also charged expenses from the hotel’s health spa and dining lounge, documents show, even though the state considers meals and entertainment to be non-reimbursable personal expenses.
When the governor and his staff travel to places where they can advocate for deals to boost Hawaii’s economy or otherwise improve the lives of people in the Aloha State, there is a real potential value.
But it’s hard to know if our taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely on these trips because there is so little public accounting.
In theory, the travel records are public, but the governor’s office charges for the time it takes to search, review and compile them. The cost can, for practical purposes, be prohibitive. Slow processing can also stall the public’s ability to learn about the trips.
Civil Beat first asked for the governor’s travel records and related expenses on June 17. We wanted records dating back to Dec. 6, 2010, which is the day he took office.
The governor’s office sent us a bill for $1,016. That cost included an estimated 6.5 hours that staff believed it would take to find the records, 47 hours to review them and redact anything confidential, and $71 to copy 1,420 pages at 5 cents per page.
Civil Beat protested the charge with the Office of Information Practices, the state agency that administers Hawaii’s open records law, but to no avail.
Eventually, working with governor’s top staff to try to find a process that was less time consuming, we narrowed down our request to a two-month period — June and July 2013 — in order to get a feel for what these records contained. We paid $86.45 in December for 129 pages of records.
The records include airline and hotel receipts, daily itineraries and program agendas for various functions. They also show who traveled with Abercrombie and where they went.
But it’s clear the governor’s travel records are disorganized and difficult to sort through.
Abercrombie’s staff could take a lesson from the Honolulu City Council, which posts council members records online in a format that is relatively easy to search. To compare how a different agency keeps records, we looked at Chair Ernie Martin‘s trip last summer on official city business and how much it cost. It involved simply going to the council’s website and clicking a pair of links — for free.
It turns out that Martin stays at more expensive hotels than Abercrombie but flies more cheaply. Martin’s five-day trip to D.C. in April cost city taxpayers $2,458. His hotel expense took up the bulk of the cost at $1,439. Airfare added $863.
The governor’s travel records aren’t very detailed, but they offer an interesting window into the way he works. Here is a quick synopsis of his peak-summer trips.
In June, Abercrombie went to San Diego, Washington, D.C., Hilo, Maui and Lanai. Three of the trips were related to Chamber of Commerce functions, one was a convention for white-collar trade workers and another involved various personal and state business, the records show.
In July, the governor went to Hilo twice, Maui three times and Taipei. The trips were diverse in purpose. One was personal, one was a goodwill trip, one was for his re-election campaign, one was public outreach and another was for the Boy Scouts.
Records show the governor took a personal trip to Maui for a long Fourth of July weekend with his wife, Nancie Caraway. Caraway’s emails to their host on the Valley Isle, David Cole, the former AOL chair and head of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., show the governor and First Lady unwinding with friends.
Caraway wrote in a June 17 email that she hopes her Maui friends will be able to join them too and that she looks forward to a schedule of eating, swimming, reading, looking at the view and drinking Proseco. Cole writes back that the weekend will be relaxing with movies and, if the governor wants, they could “watch the ponies” during a polo match.
The governor and his wife paid their own way on that trip, but the state paid $1,050 to fly his two security guards over and put them up at the Kula Sandalwoods bed and breakfast for four nights.
The records show that Abercrombie sometimes lets business organizations or government agencies pay his way.
Taipei officials invited the governor to visit to mark the inaugural Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu. The Taipei government picked up the governor and his staff’s food and accommodations tab at the five-star W Taipei hotel in July. The costs and details of that bill aren’t in the records.
The Office and Professional Employees International Union paid for Abercrombie’s first-class airfare and lodging at a high-end hotel in San Diego where he was a featured speaker at a labor conference in June. That two-day trip still cost taxpayers more than $3,000 for his chief of staff, Bruce Coppa, and two security guards to accompany him.
Peruse the governor’s June travel records here:
Here are the governor’s July travel records: