Efforts to find a successor for a prominent trustee of Hawaii’s wealthiest Native Hawaiian trust have stalled, as a committee set up to screen candidates has withdrawn the names of the three people nominated for the position.
The move by the Kamehameha Schools Trustee Screening Committee comes just two months after the committee had put forth the names of three candidates to succeed outgoing trustee Micah Kane, a prominent Honolulu executive who is also chief executive of the Hawaii Community Foundation.
Now the committee is back to the drawing board.
Officially called the Trustees of the Estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, Kamehameha Schools trustees oversee some $9.5 billion in assets which are used to help educate and serve people of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
The trust was at the center of a scandal in the 1990s involving prominent figures from all three branches of Hawaii’s government, which is chronicled in the book “Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement & Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust,” by Randy Roth, a trusts and estates law professor and Samuel King, a retired federal judge.
The exposure of the trust’s mismanagement led to numerous reforms, including processes for appointing trustees, including the creation of a steering committee to assist in a process managed by the probate court, which oversees the estate.
In February, the committee put forth the names of three people: Keith Fernandez, a prominent real estate developer; Eric Tom, a technology company executive; and Dr. Gregory Yim, a medical doctor. But in a document filed with the state Circuit Court in Honolulu, the steering committee said that after announcing the candidates it “received information and comments that now compel the Steering Committee to withdraw” their names.
The committee also said it couldn’t complete the process of selecting a trustee to succeed Kane. Finally, the committee said it would no longer consider public comments submitted anonymously “or submitted without proper authority to speak on behalf of another person, group, company, organization, or other entity or affiliation received during the public comment period.”
Michael Pietsch, a title company executive who serves on the committee, declined to comment and referred questions to fellow committee member Michael Rawlins, who runs a security company. Rawlins declined to comment, pointing to the document filed with the court.
While the document makes clear that the committee is withdrawing the names of Fernandez, Tom and Yim, it leaves unanswered numerous questions. Roth said he found the document perplexing.
“Whoever wrote it was either incompetent or intentionally trying to hide what’s going on,” Roth said.
Esther Kiaaina, a Honolulu City Councilwoman and member of a hui of prominent Native Hawaiians following the matter, agreed. She said she and hui members are especially concerned about what seems to be a lack of transparency.
“All of us have grave concerns about the committee trying to circumvent transparency,” she said.
Kiaaina said she and others have previously expressed concerns about the lack of diversity among the estate’s trustees. Four of the five trustees are men, she said.
Perhaps more important, she said, is that the trustees tend to come from business or corporate backgrounds. In addition to Kane, board of trustees chair Lance Keawe Wilhelm, for instance, is a real estate developer, vice chairman Robert Nobriga a financial services company executive; Elliott Mills is a hotel executive and Crystal Rose a corporate lawyer.
Kiaana said it is not surprising that the selection committee would tend to choose male candidates because five of seven members are men. In addition to Pietsch and Rawlins, the committee consists of Jason Fujimoto, a building supply company executive; Robert Fujioka, a retired banker; Douglas Goto, who runs a financial services firm; Kaiulani Sodaro, who works for a resort company, and Amanda Harbottle.
Frances Miller, who now teaches trusts and estates law at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, said a key question is how the committee is chosen.
“Who selects the selectors?” she said.
Kiaaina said the committee’s restart could turn into something positive if it leads to a more transparent and inclusive process.
“Maybe this is a chance for us to pause and say, ‘Can we start over?’” she said. “This is an opportune time for us to reflect deeply and ask, ‘Should we have to take this anymore?’ We should not have to go protesting in the streets to have our voices heard.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?