A longtime trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is suing the Hawaii State Ethics Commission after the watchdog agency asked her to pay thousands of dollars in fines for alleged ethics violations.

Rowena Akana, who has served as an OHA trustee for 28 years, filed a lawsuit in state court Wednesday contending that the commission is overstepping its authority and has violated her constitutional rights.

Her attorney, Stephen Tannenbaum, said at a press conference Wednesday that Gov. David Ige’s administration is giving commission director Daniel Gluck the authority to second-guess OHA spending decisions years after expenses were approved internally. The agency manages a trust fund dedicated to Native Hawaiians and has an estimated $600 million in assets.

“This cannot happen. If this is allowed to happen Gov. (David) Ige will have successfully taken over all control of OHA spending and OHA spending decisions,” Tannenbaum told a roomful of reporters in his office in downtown Honolulu. “The Ige administration sees the infighting among certain OHA trustees as a chance to set a precedent where he can wrest control of OHA funds from OHA and this is what Trustee Akana is trying to stop with this lawsuit.”

Steve Tannenbaum Counsel for OHA Trustee Akana.
Attorney Steve Tannenbaum speaks at a press conference on behalf of OHA Trustee Rowena Akana. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Ige, said the governor’s office is not interfering in OHA’s affairs.

“That’s preposterous,” McMillan said. “OHA is a constitutional entity and it has its own autonomous governance structure and the Ige administration is not involved in that whatsoever.”

But Tannenbaum believes the Ige administration is getting involved given that Gluck is a political appointee. Tannenbaum estimated 90 percent of Akana’s expenses that the commission cited had been approved by OHA and said she has already repaid those expenses that OHA rejected.

“There is an already-existing system in place to oversee OHA trustees,” Tannenbaum said. “Of course they have to act ethically but the commission cannot step in and second-guess decisions that have already been made by OHA sometimes years in the past.”

Gluck defended the commission in an emailed statement late Wednesday and called the suggestion that Ige is involved in the case “patently absurd.”

“The Hawaii State Ethics Commission has a full, fair, and thorough process for evaluating alleged violations of the State Ethics Code, and anyone found to have violated the Ethics Code has the opportunity to appeal the Commission’s decision all the way to the Hawaii Supreme Court if they so wish. However, the law does not allow an individual charged with ethics violations to run to court to try to short-circuit this established administrative process,” he wrote.

“The Governor’s role in the Commission is set forth in Hawaii Revised Statutes 84-21. The Governor has absolutely no role in the Commission’s enforcement of individual matters, and any suggestion to the contrary is patently absurd. Pursuant to HRS 84-35, my colleagues and I serve at the pleasure of the Ethics Commission; we are neither hired nor fired by the Governor or any other elected official.”

Gluck said he could not comment specifically on Akana’s case. Tannenbaum said the commission is seeking a $50,000 fine, but Gluck would not confirm that.

The commission’s charge against Akana alleged she violated the state’s gift reporting law by accepting and failing to properly disclose more than $72,000 she received from Abigail Kawananakoa, a Hawaiian heiress. The money went to pay for legal fees in a countersuit filed by other trustees, including current OHA Board Chairwoman Colette Machado, regarding Akana’s release of confidential information.

Akana was the target of a state ethics investigation last year regarding that release of confidential information. The trustees settled the case in December and Akana apologized. Tannenbaum said Akana thought that the ethics investigation into the matter was resolved but found out last week that it’s still pending.

OHA Trustee Rowena Akana OHA candidate forum held at Windward Community College.
OHA Trustee Rowena Akana speaks at an OHA candidate forum held at Windward Community College. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tannenbaum suggested both investigations were politically motivated by people who have “grudges and axes to grind” whom he declined to name. Akana is running for re-election this year for an at-large trustee seat. She’s part of a minority faction at OHA and was previously ousted from the chairmanship and replaced by Machado.

Tannenbaum declined to say who is paying Akana’s legal fees for this case. He said the money is not coming from Akana’s trustee allowance, but she is still using and spending her allowance. Tannenbaum requested a hearing at the ethics commission but said he was told the commission is planning to revise its charges against Akana and add new allegations.

Tannenbaum wants the court to stop the ethics commission’s proceedings and to determine that they are improper. The attorney told reporters that many of the expenses that the commission flagged were small, such as $25 for food for staff and $25 to the Hawaiian Humane Society, and had been approved by OHA’s administration years beforehand.

“There’s nothing improper about giving $25 to the Humane Society,” he said, adding it would only be considered unethical if Akana received improper benefits from the Humane Society or vice versa. “The Humane Society wasn’t channeling her free puppies.”

Akana used some of her $22,200 OHA trustee allowance to cover those expenses. The commission’s charge against Akana followed a searing state audit that raised questions about expenses by multiple trustees as well as spending approved by the current chief executive officer.

An attorney for OHA said earlier this year that the agency is under investigation by the state Attorney General. Akana said previously that the agency is also under federal investigation.

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