Lee Cataluna: The Curious Incident Of Colleen Hanabusa And HART - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

“There’s nothing face-saving here,” Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said.

OK, sure, argue the motivation, but the outcome is that some faces definitely got saved. Some butts quickly got covered. 

Longtime Hawaii hard-ass and political plotter Colleen Hanabusa was all set to accept a lucrative multiyear consulting contract for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the agency building the deeply troubled Oahu rail project.

This was going down after 48 HART staff members were let go and a number of contractors who worked within the agency were terminated. The chorus of boos was just getting started when it was announced that plans had changed and instead of a multiyear contract worth close to $1 million, Hanabusa would actually be helping out HART for free.

Nobody is stepping up and taking credit for the horrible optics of the Hanabusa contract nor the strategic save, but somewhere, cooler heads prevailed and Hanabusa was provided a graceful exit from what would have been an almost unforgivable plum position had she accepted. 

To hear both Blangiardi and Hanabusa tell it, neither had any idea that she had been the only bidder on a contract that seemed tailor-made for her qualifications.

To hear both Blangiardi and Hanabusa tell it, the quick pivot to have her instead accept a position back on the HART board, the same unpaid position she held for a brief time from 2015 to 2016, was not a do-over or a way to douse the fire of controversy over the contract scheme; it was merely an opportunity to put Hanabusa to her best use in supporting the rail project.

After all, the board position only recently became open. After all, Hanabusa only wants to help as best she can.

Right. Never mind that the move was like hastily spraying political Febreze on a stinky deal. The smell of fake flowers was heavy in the air.

However, the part about Hanabusa wanting to help HART as best she can actually rings true. Hanabusa is committed to seeing the rail project completed. It was supported by legendary Hawaii U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, and Hanabusa, more than any other active politician in Hawaii, lays claim to being Inouye’s chosen heir.

Hanabusa is an attorney who served in the Legislature for more than a decade, and in Congress from 2011 to 2019 (with a break in between to run, unsuccessfully, for governor). It just so happened that the qualifications for the HART contract specifically matched up to her bio: a law degree, 20 years of experience practicing law, 10 years of experience in city or state government and a minimum five years of experience at the federal government. 

Colleen Hanabusa speaks to media after Mayor Blangiardi announced the appointment of Hanabusa to the HART Board.
Colleen Hanabusa said Tuesday that she will serve on the HART board as an unpaid volunteer instead of pursuing a lucrative contract. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Supposedly, that was just a coincidence. 

Further supposedly, Blangiardi was struck with the idea to ask Hanabusa to serve on the HART board instead of getting paid as a consultant, but not to save face or anything. It just seemed like a good idea.

And supposedly beyond that, HART board member Glenn Nohara, a Hanabusa campaign donor, just happened to resign his position on the board, making room for Hanabusa to jump back in and spend some time remaking her public image as a can-do person rather than an also-ran candidate.

Amazing how that all worked out.

Blangiardi denied being concerned about the appearance of favoritism, even though Hanabusa endorsed him during last year’s general election and her former chief of staff, Mike Formby, is now serving as his managing director. 

However, the part about Hanabusa wanting to help HART as best she can actually rings true. Hanabusa is committed to seeing the rail project completed.

Such a tight little circle, but all involved would have us believe that none of it was orchestrated for political reasons. It just looks that way.

Hanabusa has said she considered not applying for the consulting job, knowing that there would be questions about favoritism if she was successful in getting the contract. In accepting the appointment to the HART board, she said, “I don’t want to be the distraction. I want to see this project completed.”

The truth of that statement will be easy to verify. If Hanabusa stays put on the board this time, we can retroactively believe her. If she’s running for governor or Congress again, well then … yeah. We’ll all look up the coverage of this messy mess and call her out on it.

Blangiardi may not want to take credit for “saving face,” but it sure seems like he read the reaction in the community and quickly figured out a way to get Hanabusa’s expertise without incurring the public relations liability of an expensive contract awarded to a political supporter. Hanabusa was his opponent in the primary race last year, and when her campaign faltered, she endorsed Blangiardi in the general election.

If all of this wasn’t plotted, orchestrated and recalibrated to balance political ambition with public sentiment, then Blangiardi and Hanabusa are blessed with a kind of Forrest Gump luck that saved their faces without them having to lift a finger.

Read this next:

John Pritchett: Grilling The Mayor

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

The title of Ms. Cataluna’s piece nods to a Sherlock Holmes short story in which the following exchange occurs:The "curious incident" is that the dog did not bark because there was no stranger there. It was an inside job, you see? This situation with HART consulting jobs turning into HART board positions is certainly curious. And there is not much barking by those on the inside, is there?

See_Jane · 1 year ago

Is this just a smoke screen of the billions of mis spent money?  We are all so concerned about a one million dollar multi-year contract, justifiably, but what about the many other contracts where one million dollars is a mathematical rounding error.  We should all be going through each of the past contracts with this same scrutiny.  Follow the money and it will be clear that many Hawaii Architecture/ engineering firms have benefited from millions of dollars of unnecessary contracts with the leaders of those firms having worked for City and State agencies.  

time4truth · 1 year ago

Priceless Photo!  Mahalo Corey!Agree with the sharp eyed Civil Beat commenters here!  Poor Rick, he can't/doesn't know how to lie yet!That's the exact look that the newest Board member of Hart is giving Rick. Or could it be that she still believes she should have been Mayor.

statenocan · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.



You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.