Gov. David Ige’s office took issue Friday with a story in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on possible revival of interisland ferry service, calling it out as false, but in doing so may have violated state ethics guidelines.

In a story published Thursday, the Star-Advertiser’s Kevin Dayton reported the Ige administration, led by state Department of Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami, was pushing a proposal to bring back the service, which was briefly operative in 2007 and 2009, but halted due to environmental concerns, legal challenges and ultimately bankruptcy.

Not so, says Ige Communications Director Cindy McMillan. In an email, she said the DOT is only pushing for completion of a study of ferry service authorized in a legislative resolution last year. The study wasn’t proposed by the Ige administration, said McMillan, who pointed out nine bills filed this legislative session regarding ferry service that “call for studies and environmental impact statements.”

People lounge on the Superferry during its public preview in 2007.
People lounge on the Superferry during its public preview in 2007. Flickr: Ryan Ozawa

While the headline and initial paragraph of the story in question claim Ige is floating and “moving ahead” with a ferry service proposal, it doesn’t substantiate that claim elsewhere. A quote from a statement issued Monday by the DOT spokesperson only confirms the department’s work with the Legislature and U.S. Maritime Administration on the feasibility study.

“Ford was testifying before a legislative committee and was asked about a feasibility study and he responded to it, but it was about the study,” said McMillan, speculating Dayton and the Star-Advertiser may have misinterpreted the exchange.

McMillan said she intended the email to only go to Ige staff members, Cabinet members and agency/division directors and deputy directors. But it also went out through Ige’s campaign email system in a template that includes an invitation to connect with the Ige election campaign by donating or following on social media. It prominently features a link to the David Ige for Governor website, where solicitations to donate to and volunteer are prominent.

McMillan didn’t know about the campaign email, which included her official signature block with her direct state office and cell phone numbers, until Civil Beat brought it to her attention Friday. She said it was “certainly not appropriate” for it to have gone out as it did and said she didn’t authorize it.

“The governor keeps a very clear separation between campaign staff and official activities,” she said.

David Ige for Governor Campaign Manager Keith Hiraoka also said he was unaware of the message until Civil Beat contacted him. After checking into the matter, he explained that the governor had forwarded to him McMillan’s memo so that if community members asked Hiraoka, he’d know “what the actual story was.”

“Without instructing our database person to paraphrase or not use the original e-mail, I asked that the message be sent out to our database,” he said, adding that he takes responsibility for the matter. “I should have instructed the person to paraphrase what Cindy was saying. Instead, the message was apparently copied and pasted and sent out.”

Even so, the matter is likely to be examined by the state Ethics Commission, said Executive Director Les Kondo. The governor’s office can’t do official business using campaign communications tools or use state employees to send out campaign messages, he said.

“I’m assuming it was probably a mistake and that they’re trying to figure it out,” said Kondo. “We likely will follow up with a phone call. If it’s an honest mistake, we’d  probably just close the file. But they should know better, and they hopefully will fix whatever went wrong.”

Dayton, who is the Star-Advertiser’s Capitol bureau chief, said in his conversations with the DOT and governor’s office that the legislative resolution on the feasibility study “never came up.” He said he didn’t interpret McMillan’s email as saying the story was incorrect, only that it focused on the idea of a proposal rather than the resolution.

“The governor’s office hasn’t asked for a correction, clarification or retraction,” Dayton told Civil Beat.

Here’s the e-mail in question:

An e-mail from Ige Communications Director Cindy McMillan calling out an erroneous story in the Star-Advertiser went out to Ige staff and appointees, but also unintentionally to others through the governor's campaign e-mail system.

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