- Special Projects
As the new board chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Rowena Akana, pushes to remove its chief executive officer, Civil Beat has obtained documents indicating that dozens of human resources complaints have been filed against her by OHA employees.
The allegations include disorderly conduct, misconduct, breach of fiduciary responsibilities, abuse of her position and violation of the interaction policy between the trustees and staff.
Meanwhile, staff morale is widely said to be poor within the agency, with some employees siding with CEO Kamana’opono Crabbe and others with Akana. Some employees are worried how cost-cutting measures suggested by Akana and new Trustee Kelii Akina might impact their jobs.
Akana did not respond to a request for comment about the human resources allegations against her, staff morale or OHA’s financial plans.
The move to oust Crabbe is the result of a power shift within the nine-member Board of Trustees brought on by Akina’s election in November.
Crabbe signed a new three-year contract for $450,000 barely two months ago and is the driving force behind a significant restructuring of OHA’s financial plans that aims to increase the agency’s revenue stream.
His forced departure, which could happen in a matters of weeks, casts doubt on the plan’s implementation this year.
This all comes as OHA is submitting its latest budget request to the Legislature for general funds. There may also be a separate request to ask for a doubling of OHA’s annual share of money from public trust lands (also known as ceded lands) to $32 million.
Civil Beat obtained confidential documents — including internal memos, organizational and investment analysis, employment contracts and fiscal plans, projections and recommendations — that give insight into the problems OHA is facing and its struggle to resolve internal issues.
The documents include over 200 pages involving allegations against Akana, as well as her own complaints, including one against OHA Corporate Counsel Ernest Kimoto over alleged violations of rules of disciplinary conduct. There are also complaints about travel expenses for both Akana and Crabbe.
Critics have raised concerns about bloated budgets and misdirected spending priorities. The office today employs 171 people to help it achieve its multi-pronged mission to better the lives of Native Hawaiians.
Ten of those employees, including Crabbe, earn salaries in the six-figure range while another four earn from $91,000 to $99,000. Crabbe’s $150,000 annual paycheck is nearly three times the salary of eight of OHA’s nine trustees, who each earn about $56,000. As chair, Akana makes $64,000.
The salaries are comparable to other state agencies.
OHA, a trust valued at $600 million that relies on a combination of public trust land revenue, state general fund monies, interest and investment earnings, commercial property leases and withdrawals from a trust fund, also now provides more than $14 million annually in grants to qualified individuals and groups.
That’s almost one-third of OHA’s current $48 million operating budget. About $3 million also goes to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
The agency’s own internal projections show a pattern of spending exceeding revenue. Under the plan pushed by Crabbe, OHA hopes to reverse that trajectory by controlling its expenditures and developing its assets, in particular parcels it owns in Kakaako Makai. One estimate of the development potential value is well over $700 million.
Crabbe declined to discuss the human resources allegations against Rowena, citing confidentiality requirements. He said morale “is always a priority for OHA, and we have programs and policies in place that address employee job satisfaction and our work environment.”
As for the fiscal plan, he said OHA is committed to its implementation.
“This board action makes OHA one of the first state agencies in Hawaii to embark on this type of holistic, long-term financial planning,” he said in a statement. “Ultimately, this plan will ensure that our trust can meet the needs of multiple generations of beneficiaries.”
In May, Crabbe presented then-Chair Robert Lindsey Jr. a summary of 22 human resources complaints against Akana.
Lindsey forwarded the summary to attorney Paul Alston, who represents six current trustees and two former trustees in a lawsuit against Akana.
On Friday — two days after news broke of the trustees voting to try to buy out Crabbe’s contract — the CEO sent a memo to the current trustees noting that no action had been taken by the Board of Trustees regarding the allegations against Akana.
“Furthermore, over the past year and a half, additional allegations had been (filed) and investigated totaling 33 and more recently two more incidences filed within the past two months,” Crabbe wrote.
The CEO said it was his responsibility to provide a “safe and healthy” working environment.
He has formally asked that Vice Chair Lei Ahu Isa make an agenda for a board meeting this month so that it may consider possible disciplinary action against Akana, stating in the Friday memo, “Until these complaints are addressed staff are subject to persistent distress to a hostile work environment.”
Crabbe wrote that Akana “continues to violate policy and inappropriately engage with staff” and warned that not acting on the complaints could place the board at risk of legal ramifications.
OHA’s fiscal sustainability plan took several years to pull together and included the hiring of a consultant, Spire Hawaii, a financial analyst. Last year, the trustees asked the company to examine the fiscal plan.
The plan was approved by all nine trustees Oct. 20 with a target date of July 1 to begin implementation.
The new financial structure has the objective of increasing the value of OHA’s assets and endowments to help it deliver on its vision and mission. Periodic progress updates are called for until implementation is completed in 2022.
On Thursday — one day after the buyout vote — Crabbe wrote to the trustees asking for an approval statement to commit to the plan’s implementation.
“During this crucial period and more recently this past week an increasing need to work together as one organization ought to be the primary duty for all of us during this new board leadership and transition,” he wrote.
Crabbe requested a “recap and update” of OHA’s organizational priorities and a progress report on the fiscal plan.
He also asked Trustee Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, part of the hui supporting Akana and chair of OHA’s Resource Management Committee, to have Spire respond to a report and presentation made by Akina to his colleagues, titled “Crucial Recommendations for Achieving Fiscal Sustainability.”
In other words, Crabbe wants the same financial analyst that approved his plan to vet Akina’s.
The Akina reports, made in late November and early December, call for reduced spending, elimination of the use of fiscal reserves, a transition to a new budgeting system and a reinstatement of OHA’s Budget and Finance Committee.
“In the long run, the budget shortfall will be offset by the higher Native Hawaiian Trust Fund investment returns, along with the prospect of increased Public Trust Land Trust revenues and a strategic solution for Kakaako Trust,” according to Akina.
If OHA adopts the recommendations, Akina foresees increased oversight by the trustees, more accountability within the administration and more fiscal transparency for beneficiaries.
To some at OHA, the Akina approach represents sound business practices. To others, it is ill-informed and an attempt by the trustees to micromanage the OHA administration.
Crabbe has asked for action from the trustees by the first week of February. But it’s not clear whether he will be around by then.
His contract, which says he can be terminated for cause, calls for hooponopono, a Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. If that doesn’t work, mediation is called for. And if that fails, the parties agree to resolve their dispute through binding arbitration.
Crabbe has not indicated he will accept the buyout, and he has retained a lawyer.
The vote for the buyout was 5-4. Six votes would be necessary for termination.
But the board could also choose to reorganize its leadership, something that former Trustees Haunani Apoliona and Oswald Stender have urged.
An OHA board meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m., one that allows for the community to weigh in and includes agenda items to form a committee to find a new chief financial officer and a proposal to change the CEO’s title to administrator.
The board is not scheduled to go into executive session.