KILAUEA, Kauai — In November 2017, Russian government officials from Moscow made an unlikely trip to Kauai to celebrate the bicentennial of a neglected Hawaii State Park known as Russian Fort Elisabeth.

Restoring the historic 19th century fort from its modern dilapidated state is a joint goal of a growing contingent of government officials and scholars from both Hawaii and Russia. 

But the event did little to sort out a controversy over what the site should be called and what version of history it should tell. 

Local scholars say Russian presence at the site was minimal — and any plan to rebuild it should focus on the fort’s place in Native Hawaiian history.

A local groundswell to rename the site Pa ʻulaʻula to reflect its Hawaiian heritage, however, has been met with opposition from some Russians who want to brand the site as their own.

Kauai Councilwoman Felicia Cowden told Civil Beat this week that she stepped in to help Russians and Russian-Americans, who had developed an interest in restoring the fort, to understand how the site’s importance to Native Hawaiians had long been buried under more vague Russian connections. 

Now the councilwoman faces a controversy of her own. 

Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden said the ethics complaint against her is politically motivated. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

On Wednesday, the Kauai County Attorney’s Office briefed the County Council and its attorney behind closed doors about the details of a Board of Ethics investigation stemming from a 2019 ethics complaint against Cowden. 

Council Chairman Arryl Kaneshiro declined to discuss the details of what went on in the meeting, but he said a legal team informed the council that it cannot discipline Cowden because the Board of Ethics already fined her $500 in January after she acknowledged that she made multiple ethics violations unintentionally.

Violations to the code of ethics can be subject to a fine, suspension or removal from office. There had been no public notice of the disciplinary action taken against Cowden two months ago prior to Wednesday.

The complaint against Cowden alleges that she used her status as a member of the County Council to secure an expense-paid trip to Volgada, Russia, to be a delegate at a Russian-American peace conference in the summer of 2019. 

Travel associated with the trip was paid for by the Russian Center of New York with a grant from American University, according to Cowden.

The complaint also faults Cowden for using letterhead that identifies her as a council member to write to Gov. David Ige and Sen. Brian Schatz urging them to attend the Russia conference, which “gave the impression attendance at the conference was being promoted by the Kauai County Council.”

The complaint says Cowden exploited county resources when she had county employees type these letters.

“I think as council members we just have to be careful of what we do and how we do it,” Kaneshiro said. “In this case, accepting a trip to Russia, she probably should have been a little more careful on it.”

Cowden said she believes the ethics case against her, and the county’s handling of it, are politically motivated.

She points to the fact that the county Board of Ethics did not investigate whether then-Councilman Arthur Brun, who was arrested last year on federal charges of running a methamphetamine trafficking ring, had utilized his county-paid cell phone to traffic drugs or firearms.

This 1993 aerial photograph of Kauai’s Russian Fort Elisabeth in Waimea shows the fort’s star-shaped design. Contributed by: Peter Mills

Cowden told Civil Beat she traveled to Russia as a private citizen — not as a representative of the County Council. She characterized the Russia forum as an act of “citizen-to-citizen diplomacy” and said her participation did not hinge on her status as a County Council member. 

The event, she said, was organized primarily by American institutions, including The Kennan Institute and The Fort Ross Conservancy, a California state historic park in Sonoma County.

“The goal was to create peace,” Cowden said. The trip “was not inappropriate at all.”

I got involved because I was the cultural broker in all this that helped the Russian-Americans not be so attached to naming the fort after the Russians,” she said. “They didn’t know how Hawaiians couldn’t even name their kids Hawaiian names at that time and why some people felt a Hawaiian name was important.”

In her letter to the governor, Cowden extends an invitation to participate in the Russia forum and asks for help in assembling an appropriate Hawaii contingent to attend as delegates.

“It is important to me that you are aware of this possible trip which … is basically a peace effort,” the letter, which she provided to Civil Beat, says.

“I sent a letter to the governor and the political higher-ups and that’s appropriate for me, as a very junior political person, to ask (them) to please engage because this is not a county issue at all,” Cowden told Civil Beat. “And so I’m pushing it off to them. That’s why I wrote those letters. Plus I wanted help.”

She calls the ethics investigation of her a “deeply unusual and expensive action against a sitting freshman elected official … in which no harm occurred.”

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