- Special Projects
Trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs spent their individual allowances on tickets to charitable galas, sponsorships for athletes and pageant contestants and donations to specific families among, many other things, according to an analysis of expense reports covering July 2016 to December 2017.
OHA is a state agency that manages a multimillion-dollar trust fund dedicated to the betterment of Native Hawaiians.
Each of the nine trustees receives an annual allowance that was $7,200 in 1991 and intended to help communication with beneficiaries and promote Hawaiian issues. But unlike similar allowances for county and state legislators, the rules governing the use of OHA allowances — which are trust funds, not taxpayer money — are relatively lax.
Today, each trustee receives about $22,000 and can spend the money on everything from donations to particular individuals to nonprofit organizations that may not qualify for formal OHA grants.
A state audit released earlier this year examined trustee allowance spending from fall 2013 to spring 2016 and criticized the loose guidelines. The audit highlighted how trustees don’t have an official process for verifying that recipients of the funds are actually Hawaiian.
“We acknowledge that trustees have broad discretion in determining whether a particular expenditure betters the conditions of Native Hawaiians and Hawaiians, but their desire to provide assistance should be tempered by their fiduciary duties to the trust beneficiaries, which include acting impartially, considering the interests of both present and future beneficiaries,” the audit said.
The audit noted that the “overall pattern of questionable spending of Trustee Allowances, which are trust funds, reflects indifference towards money held for trust beneficiaries.”
The “questionable use” of the funds may erode public confidence in OHA, the audit said, adding that no trustee had ever been sanctioned for misuse of his or her allowance.
“Perhaps most importantly, the inappropriate use of trust funds may be resulting in trustees committing breaches for trust and fiduciary duties,” the audit said, recommending clearer policies and enforcement of sanctions.
Civil Beat obtained trustee expense reports from July 2016 to December 2017 through a public records request with the help of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. OHA resisted releasing these reports for several months, noting that the agency is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s office in the wake of the state audit. Hawaii News Now reported that OHA is also under investigation by the FBI.
In response to the audit, OHA put a moratorium on spending trustee allowances. An OHA ad hoc committee recommended capping the allowances at $7,200 each, Hawaii Public Radio reported last week.
Here is a summary of how each trustee spent their allowance.
Dan Ahuna is a strong supporter of athletic programs and spent his trustee allowance accordingly, including on the following:
Ahuna’s other donations included:
Ahuna declined a phone interview about his expenses but wrote in an email: “My only response to any questions regarding these expenditures is that they were all made in accordance with OHA policy and I am proud to have supported these multiple organizations and causes in an effort to further OHA’s mission to serve and better the conditions of Native Hawaiians, especially our youth.”
Rowena Akana spent much of her allowance on telecommunications like Wi-Fi, phone and fax lines and an iPhone 7 plus.
Her other expenses include:
Akana is the subject of an ethics investigation into expenditures between 2013 and 2017 that include accepting $72,000 from Princess Abigail Kawananakoa and improperly spending her allowance, including giving a donation the Hawaiian Humane Society. Akana has denied the allegations and has filed a lawsuit to fight the charges. The contested case proceedings are expected to begin this month. She has called the allegations politically motivated and is running for re-election this year.
In response to a request for comment for this article, Akana wrote, “NOPE.”
Like Akana, Apo has run into trouble with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. Last year he paid a $25,000 fine after the commission found he used OHA funds for personal purposes, including writing a column for Civil Beat. OHA also paid $50,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint against Apo.
The expense reports from July 2016 to December 2017 found much of Apo’s allowance was spent on online communications along with sponsorships for various conferences and events. Some of the line items included:
“Everything that I spent my money on betters the conditions of Native Hawaiians,” Apo said in a phone interview. “I feel really good about everything I did, I apologize for none of it.”
He said many Hawaiians depend on dialysis and added that his money spent on tourism galas and conferences helps “position Hawaiians in a better place to be part of an industry that’s built on the backs of the Hawaiian concept of aloha.”
In Apo’s view, people are picking on OHA. “There are far more violations of that nature… by every elected official in Hawaii in every branch of government,” he said. Even though “there are probably some questionable expenses,” he believes “the majority of trustees spent their money that definitely contributed to the betterment of Native Hawaiians.”
Ahu Isa’s allowance went largely to individuals and organizations like the River of Life Mission and KAMP Hawaii. She returned her remaining balance earlier this year following the audit. Here are her big-ticket expenses:
Ahu Isa declined to comment on her expenses.
Lindsey from Maui spent her allowance on meetings with beneficiaries, donations to Hawaiian nonprofits and donations to beneficiaries. Some of her expenses include:
Like Akana, Lindsey is running for re-election this year. She did not respond to a phone message and emails seeking comment.
Lindsey didn’t have as many expenditures as his fellow trustees. Like Ahuna, he gave $1,200 to the Hawaii Surf Team to participate in the 2016 ISA World Junior Surfing Championships in Portugal. Lindsey also spent $240 for a half-page advertisement to support Mrs Honolulu Hawaii 2017 for the Mrs. Hawaii State Pageant.
Lindsey declined to comment for this story.
Machado donated several times to families who had lost loved ones in amounts ranging from $200 to $1,000. She also spent much of her allowance buying lunches for staff and gatherings related to Native Hawaiians.
Other donations included:
Machado declined to comment for this story.
Trustee Kelii Akina has never spent his allowance and trustee John Waihee IV did not spend any of his allowance during the period for which reports were obtained.
Waihee previously told Civil Beat that he stopped using his allowance years ago due to confusion over the rules. Like Akana, Ahu Isa and Hulu Lindsey, Waihee is running for re-election this fall.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.
You can also comment directly on this story by scrolling down a little further. Comments are subject to approval and we may not publish every one.
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing quality journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?