For the second time in as many weeks, Gov. David Ige’s top economic advisor abruptly pulled the plug on a Senate hearing to discuss his department’s plan to revive Hawaii’s foundering economy.

The heads of several divisions within Gov. David Ige’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism were scheduled to discuss their plans on Thursday before the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19.

But just before the department’s officials were scheduled to appear, DBEDT’s director, Mike McCartney, wrote an email to Senate President Ron Kouchi to say that DBEDT wouldn’t be participating after all. In the letter, McCartney reiterated accusations he’d made two weeks earlier at a different Senate hearing that some senators had bullied McCartney and his staff.

DBEDT director Mike McCartney, left, has asked Senate President Ron Kouchi to discipline some lawmakers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senators expressed dismay that at a time when an anxious public is suffering an immense economic crisis, the state’s top economic official won’t discuss his economic recovery plan with lawmakers because he says some senators have been mean to him in the past.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, said it’s urgent for government officials to help out the nearly one-third of the work force who are jobless.

“We’ve got to find jobs for those 220,000 people who are unemployed,” he said after the meeting.

The abrupt cancellation left some lawmakers clearly disappointed.

Sen. Michelle Kidani said senators had come to the Capitol specifically for the presentation.

“It would have been nice if we could have had more notice,” she said.

Ways and Means Chair Donovan M. Dela Cruz during hearing on funding emergency appropriations in response to future COVID-19 Coronavirus health concerns in Hawaii.
For the second time in as many weeks, Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 chair Donovan Dela Cruz couldn’t get Ige administration officials to discuss their economic recovery plans. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

McCartney, who has filed a formal complaint with Kouchi, specifically accused two senators of bullying him and his staff. One of the lawmakers cited, Sen. Glenn Wakai, is not on the Senate COVID-19 committee. The other is Dela Cruz who chairs the special COVID-19 committee as well as the Senate Ways and Means Committee, a key leadership position.

“Please know I am (and the entire DBEDT Ohana) are ready, fully committed and eager to participate in the policy making process — such as hearings — but only when I (as the Director) can be assured that DBEDT employees will no longer be subjected to bullied, harassment, intimidation and threats which have created a hostile work environment,” McCartney wrote to Kouchi.

In his email to Kouchi, McCartney cited Senate Rule 81, which among other things says, “Members should conduct themselves in a respectful manner befitting the office with which they as elected officials have been entrusted, respecting and complying with the law and acting at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the Senate.”

As Civil Beat reported Wednesday, the bad blood between senators and McCartney and his staff stems from a years-old feud that began after Wakai’s wife, Miki, was forced to leave her position at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which is administratively attached to DBEDT.

A state investigation last year found that Wakai repeatedly harassed and bullied workers of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The findings were turned over to Senate leaders in April 2019 as a formal complaint against Wakai in accordance with the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy. Senate leadership will not say what, if any, action has been taken but Wakai acknowledged that he was interviewed by a Senate investigator earlier this year.

Kouchi did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Gov. David Ige’s spokeswoman, Cindy McMillan, also did not return a call seeking comment.

The administration’s unwillingness to discuss its plan for reviving the economy comes at a critical time. Economists estimate about one-third of the state’s workforce – as many as 220,000 people – are unemployed.

And the governor has articulated no clear plan for reopening the state to tourism, which is the largest private industry employer, with more than 100,000 hotel and restaurant jobs and thousands more in retail businesses that cater mainly to tourists.

The public has few details about how people might get back to work in a major industry — and how the lost jobs can be restored: both for the short term and long term. A 14-day quarantine order for people arriving in Honolulu has stopped the spread of the virus, but it also has shut down the tourism industry. And there’s no sign of it reopening soon.

In his email to Kouchi, McCartney pointed to a document posted on the  DBEDT website which he said was shared with lawmakers before the 1 p.m. meeting Thursday. Although titled “DBEDT’s State Economic Recovery Draft Strategy Plan,” the document was more presentation than a detailed plan.

In a text message to Civil Beat Thursday afternoon, McCartney reiterated his accusations of bullying by some senators.

“Their behavior is disrespectful, abusive, hurtful and causes harm to people … because of how they exercise their authority and power,” he wrote. “It has to stop.”

Relations between the Senate special committee and the Ige administration have been strained for the past several weeks, with the committee members complaining that Ige’s top agency officials have been uncooperative. The Senate voted 24-1 to form a special investigative committee with subpoena power and the power to compel testimony.

On Monday, however, Kouchi signed a memo rescinding that committee. That was the same day Ige sent a letter to Kouchi promising better cooperation and pledging to get the attorney general to help facilitate cooperation, according to the letter.

“I ask that Members abide by Senate Rules requiring that they conduct proceedings with respect and courtesy, including towards witnesses who appear before them,” Ige wrote.

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