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It’s been four years since John Waihee IV paid for a seat upgrade on a business trip from Honolulu to Washington, D.C. He says he barely remembers the details but thinks he was anxious about having a middle seat and decided to spend more to sit in an aisle seat in economy class.
He paid more than $200 for the change, using money from his allowance as a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs where he’s served as a board member for several years. Waihee reported the spending to OHA and later forgot about it.
That’s until the expense surfaced in a highly critical state audit earlier this year questioning whether OHA trustees and staff have been properly spending money that’s dedicated to improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians.
“If (the agency) had denied it, I would have paid it back, but they didn’t deny it,” Waihee says now.
Waihee’s expenses were among many trustee expenses that State Auditor Les Kondo flagged as questionable. Trustees get $22,200 per year in allowance money and the auditor said the lax way the trustees spent it is emblematic of broader fiscal problems at OHA.
The scandal comes at a bad time for OHA politicians who are running for re-election this year. There are five seats on the ballot and four incumbents. Waihee sits in a statewide, at-large seat and is hoping to keep it. So are Rowena Akana, who has been a trustee since 1990, and Lei Ahu Isa, who joined in 2015. The seats will be on the primary ballot in August, with a total of 15 people competing to fill them.
Civil Beat took a deeper look at how incumbents for OHA statewide seats spent their allowances so you know where they stand before the August primary.
When Lei Ahu Isa joined OHA in 2015, she says she was surprised by the freedom OHA trustees had to spend their allowances. As a former state representative, she was used to expenditures needing approval by the chief clerk.
“I get a check directly for $22,000 to my name,” she says. “That’s kind of spooky … I don’t think that’s right as an elected official.”
Ahu Isa donated $1,000 for a fellow trustee’s son’s medical expenses and took former House Speaker Joseph Souki and a beneficiary out to lunches at MW Restaurant, high-end dining in Ala Moana. She blames the first expense on bad advice from a former OHA lawyer and says she repaid the latter.
She also gave money to various organizations like the Mauna Kea Legal Defense Fund, Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce and Waikiki Community Center.
After the audit came out, Ahu Isa closed her trustee allowance account and returned more than $4,800 to OHA in February. She says she supports revamping the OHA trustee allowance system.
“It’s not good accounting that the trustees get the money upfront,” she says.
Rowena Akana is the target of a state ethics investigation for her trust fund expenses as well as for accepting $72,000 from an heiress. She declined to talk on the phone, writing in an email, “I don’t want my words twisted.”
The ethics commission is questioning the use of trust funds for Akana’s internet and cable bill. The trustee says she worked from home and is legally challenging the commission’s allegations. She says that her expenses were all in line with OHA policies and argues that the commission lacks the authority to investigate OHA because it is a trust for Native Hawaiians and outside the commission’s jurisdiction.
“Some things (the ethics commission) were alleging was NEVER CHARGED to my allowance like the Hawaiian Premier Club Card. And other things I know nothing about,” she said in an email.
But internet and cable weren’t Akana’s only expenses. She also used her allowance for legal fees, including $1,500 paid to her attorney Eric Seitz, and spent $2,000 to sponsor a conference for the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.
Her list of expenses include a $50 donation to the Democratic National Convention and another to the Hawaii County Democrats. Akana also donated money to various families and paid a beneficiary’s rent and utilities.
Akana declined to comment on specific expenses and referred additional questions to her attorney.
In addition to his seat upgrade on United Airlines, Waihee also used $600 to pay for a beneficiary’s rent. He ran into trouble when Bank of Hawaii charged him a $276 overdraw fee for overdrawing the account. He says that happened because OHA cashed a check he gave it earlier than expected.
Waihee says he closed the account after that January 2015 incident.
“That was the last year I had the trustee allowance because it was just giving me too much stress,” he says. “I was already feeling stressed because I was never sure exactly what was allowed … I was uncomfortable with it.”
He says OHA staff never told him his expenses were problematic. Waihee says he paid back the bank fee and the upgrade fee after the audit was released this year.
The rent payment went to a woman who worked as a waitress in a restaurant across the street from OHA. Waihee says he knew she was a beneficiary because her name was Hawaiian. The audit noted that the agency doesn’t have a process for verifying that recipients of OHA allowance money have Hawaiian ancestry.
Waihee says before the ethics commission interviewed Akana, the agency questioned him about his expenses.
“It was kind of a terrifying experience so that’s why I’m a little, I’m still kind of a little bit shaken when I talk about this,” he says. He says he was relieved when he heard that the commission determined he hadn’t broken ethics rules.
“The only policy we were ever concerned with complying with were OHA’s internal policies,” he says. “It would never have occurred to anyone that we would have to ask the ethics commission if this (expense) was proper. It didn’t occur to us that it would apply to our trustee allowance.”
Moving forward, Waihee says OHA should consider either getting rid of the allowance or ensuring policies comply with the ethics commission.
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