The board of a state agency dedicated to helping Native Hawaiians voted Tuesday to temporarily stop using three major funding streams after a state audit lambasted the agency for misspending.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is a semi-autonomous government agency that manages a $600 million trust to benefit Hawaii’s indigenous people.

State auditors found that OHA’s Board of Trustees and administration spent millions of dollars loosely and unfairly — favoring people who knew how to work the system.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs OHA Chair Colette Machado meeting.
Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Colette Machado supported the moratorium on spending. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The board passed two measures pausing expenditures from funds known as the fiscal reserve, chief executive officer sponsorships and trustee allowances. The measure governing $3 million in the fiscal reserve passed unanimously. The moratorium on spending CEO sponsorships and trustee allowances passed 6-3, with trustees Keliʻi Akina, Rowena Akana Peter Apo in opposition.

Board Chairwoman Collette Machado said during a Tuesday meeting that the purpose of the proposals was to improve public confidence in OHA.

“It’s bringing some respect to the trustees and the way we use our resources,” said Machado, adding that an OHA committee spent 90 days coming up with new policies and procedures governing the use of the funds. She said after the meeting that the moratorium won’t affect any current programs.

Debate Over Trustee Allowances

The vote followed a lively discussion about a motion from Akina, which ultimately failed, to exempt trustee allowances from the moratorium.

Akina is an outspoken critic of OHA spending practices and says he hasn’t spent any of his own trustee allowance since getting elected in 2016.

But he argued against putting a moratorium on trustee allowance spending Tuesday, saying the money represented a minuscule percentage of the total amount of spending flagged by the state auditor. His motion failed with a vote of 5-4.

“A moratorium on that (trustee allowance) spending will have virtually no impact on that trust whatsoever,” Akina said.

Instead, Akina wanted OHA trustees to voluntarily return any money they misspent. He noted Trustee Lei Ahu Isa says she already returned $1,400.

Akina said the purpose for his motion was to focus on the administration’s spending rather than the trustees. He has previously called for the removal of the agency’s chief executive officer, Kamana’opono Crabbe.

Left, OHA Chair Colette Machada leads board meeting with left, Member Dan Ahuna in OHA meeting held at board room with large chairs.
OHA board members met Tuesday, with some defending how they spent trust funds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We don’t need to be having a conversation about tiny amounts spent by trustees,” Akina said.

Ironically, his motion had the opposite effect.

Trustee Rowena Akana said it was unfair for the state auditor to criticize the use of trustee allowances for donations to Native American organizations, calling them “sister organizations that are helping us with sovereignty.”

“The auditors are nickel and dime people and everything is black and white,” Akana said. “They weren’t looking at the mission (of OHA). They were only looking at dollars and cents.”

Trustee Peter Apo defended the use of his allowance to establish a learning center for Native Hawaiians. “I’m proud of what I did and I’m going to stand by it,” he said, adding of the trustee expenditures: “Nothing is ever perfect.”

Trustee Dan Ahuna teared up explaining that the public wrongly assumed he used his allowance to pay for some of his son’s medical expenses. The money actually came from Ahu Isa, who said Tuesday that she was wrongly advised and had already reimbursed OHA. Ahuna urged his colleagues to vote in favor of the moratorium.

“I think our leadership right here on this table is reckless right now and we need help,” Ahuna said.

OHA beneficiaries who gave public testimony agreed.

“Let’s cut the crap,” said Landon Paikai, who identified himself as a beneficiary and candidate for the Board of Trustees. “This is a good kick, a good swift kick in our okoles. Let’s focus, realign ourselves and move forward.”

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