Over the past few years, the Hawaii Legislature has approved several hundred thousand dollars in grants-in-aid to an animal nonprofit that has two state lawmakers on its board of directors, according to tax forms and government records.

Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani and Rep. Ryan Yamane did not disclose their ties to Poi Dogs & Popoki before voting in April on the overall budget bill, which included another $126,000 in grant money for the group, according to the House and Senate journals.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said Monday that it’s incumbent upon the individual lawmaker to raise the question of whether there is a potential conflict of interest and have the chamber’s presiding member rule on it.

In this instance, he said, he doesn’t see a conflict because the legislators are not receiving compensation for their service on the board.

Education Chair Senator Michelle Kidani during hearings. 16 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sen. Michelle Kidani, pictured, and Rep. Ryan Yamane serve on the board of directors of Poi Dogs & Popoki, a nonprofit that the Legislature voted to give a $126,400 state grant to last session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A similar issue arose in 2014 when the Legislature awarded a $100,000 grant-in-aid to a nonprofit headed by Rep. Rida Cabanilla to clean up a plantation cemetery. Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration did not release the funding though because the Ewa Historical Society had lost its tax-exempt status.

The grant process is competitive and the decision-making process murky. Some 270 nonprofits applied for grants-in-aid in January. The applications are posted online, and it notes Yamane and Kidani as board members. 

There is generally just one public hearing each year that focuses on the grants. During the hours-long meeting, applicants pitch their funding requests to the House and Senate money committees, which Kidani sits on, and answer questions.

Alicia Maluafiti’s campaign flier quotes Sen. Michelle Kidani, who serves on her nonprofit’s board of directors. 

Lawmakers then meet privately to whittle down the list. They announced in April that 120 groups would receive a combined $30 million.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, who handled grants-in-aid for the House, said she wasn’t aware of Kidani and Yamane serving on the nonprofit’s board but does not think anyone was trying to hide anything.

She said it’s not a normal process to declare a conflict in such cases.

Saiki said the conflict-of-interest standard for the Legislature is distinct because it is a part-time body.

“It was always envisioned that members would have part-time jobs outside of the Legislature, so the conflict standard is a little different,” he said.

Poi Dogs & Popoki President Alicia Maluafiti had asked for $141,500 to continue the nonprofit’s work spaying and neutering cats and dogs. She received $190,000 in 2016 for a mobile pet wellness clinic and $200,000 in 2014 for facility renovations. The group also receives grant money from the county and private donations.

Maluafiti does the work on a volunteer basis. Her day job is a lobbyist for biotech firms, pesticide companies and property-management groups.

Last legislative session, Maluafiti worked the Capitol halls on behalf of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, CropLife America, Owners of Ilikai Apartment Building, Automotive Body and Painting Association of Hawaii and Associa, where Kidani has worked as a community relations manager.

There are other lobbyists on the Poi Dogs & Popoki board of directors, including Richard Emery of Hawaii First and Blake Oshiro of Capitol Consultants.

Maluafiti is also running for election this year. She’s enlisted Kidani’s support in her bid to win the open Senate seat representing Ewa in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary.

In a campaign flier, Kidani is quoted as a proud Poi Dogs & Popoki board member who supports Maluafiti for her volunteer work to help people affordably sterilize cats and dogs through the nonprofit’s mobile spay and neuter clinic.

Maluafiti’s top opponent is Rep. Matt LoPresti, who is vacating his House seat for the opportunity to replace Sen. Will Espero, who had to step down in May to run for lieutenant governor. LoPresti declined to comment.

Maluafiti, Kidani and Yamane didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

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