Former Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa wasn’t the only person officials from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation wanted to hire to help it secure more money for the city’s beleaguered rail project.

They also wanted Denis Dwyer, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who’s worked on rail since at least 2005.

Internal emails and other procurement records obtained by Civil Beat under a public records request show that top HART officials, including Board Chairman Toby Martyn and Executive Director Lori Kahikina, planned to hire both Hanabusa and Dwyer even before they began a required competitive bidding process.

In Hanabusa’s case, they narrowed the bid specifications to the point where she was the only qualified bidder.

For Dwyer, they picked him and his company, Williams & Jensen, from a group of three other bidders, including well-known lobbying firms, some of which have strong political ties to Hawaii and a history of securing federal dollars for rail.

The documents show, however, that those other firms were never seriously being considered.

Workers install the track on the rail guideway near the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Lobbying contracts issued by HART are coming under increased scrutiny. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

HART put out a request for proposals for a federal lobbyist on Feb. 26. But in January Kahikina was already referring to it in emails with Martyn as “Denis’ contract.”

She wasn’t alone. The emails contain other explicit references to Dwyer and HART’s desire to put him back on the project payroll long before it began seeking bids from other firms.

HART officials wanted Dwyer to work with Hanabusa so that they could tag team the rail project’s financial woes and help secure more funding to fill what’s currently estimated to be a $3.6 billion deficit.

Among the questions was whether Dwyer or Hanabusa would take the lead in lobbying the federal government.

“Point of clarification: Will Denis be HART’s liaison or the Board’s?” Cindy Matsushita, the board’s executive officer, wrote in a Jan. 14 email. “It may seem like a fine point now, but there may be a time down the road when that distinction matters.”

“Yeah, we need to discuss — maybe with Toby and Lori,” responded Rick Keene, who is HART’s deputy executive director.

“I betcha that Denis has better relationships with the congressional delegation than Colleen. For example, he helped (U.S. Sen. Brian) Schatz write the language that was in the recent bill that extended HART’s funding. Plus, I think Colleen would have to be a registered lobbyist in order to do that — maybe that’s not a problem.”

Kahikina refused to talk to Civil Beat for this story.

“I’m sorry, I just don’t see an upside for me or HART,” she said via text message.

Martyn, Dwyer and Hanabusa did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for comment.

Both Keene and Matsushita were on the three-person evaluation committee that scored the bids and awarded Dwyer’s firm the contract in April worth up to $1.4 million. The third member of that committee was HART spokesman Joey Manahan.

HART’s contracting procedures have come under increased scrutiny since April when it announced that it awarded a contract worth nearly $1 million to Hanabusa.

Lori Kahikina, Director Department of Environmental Services announces some workers that were COVID-19 positive and in self quarantine.
HART executive director Lori Kahikina refused to talk about Denis Dwyer’s contract with Civil Beat. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The news sparked widespread community backlash and in May the former congresswoman joined Mayor Rick Blangiardi at a press conference to say that she was giving up the contract and would instead serve as an unpaid volunteer on the HART board of directors.

The controversy spilled over again earlier this month when HART released internal emails to Civil Beat under a public records request that revealed agency officials had discussed hiring Hanabusa as early as December even though the solicitation for bids didn’t go out until late February.

Hanabusa and HART officials, including Kahikina and Martyn, have said they did nothing wrong and that the city’s attorneys say there were no procurement violations. Still, Kahikina said she would refer the matter to the Honolulu Ethics Commission.

But, unlike Hanabusa, Dwyer wasn’t the only consultant to bid on the chance to become HART’s federal lobbyist. Three other firms submitted proposals to HART, including Dentons US, Strategies 360 and Holland & Knight. Each firm had its competitive advantages.

For instance, Dentons, a national firm with a large lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., had recently merged with Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, one of Honolulu’s most prominent law firms.

According to Dentons’ proposal, Bill Kaneko, who had served as a campaign manager to former Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie, would be one of the main points of contact for HART.

The firm also boasted of its close ties to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, noting that the company’s team members had a decades long relationship.

“We are confident that no other Offeror can make a similar claim,” the proposal said.

The Strategies 360 team, according to its proposal, would be led by Andy Winer, the former chief of staff to Brian Schatz, “who has deep understanding of the Honolulu Rail Transit Project.”

Winer is one of the best known political operatives in Hawaii and has many connections in Washington, D.C., having worked on the campaigns of three of the four members of Hawaii’s federal delegation, including Schatz, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and Congressman Kai Kahele.

He would be joined by John White, himself a former chief of staff to Hirono when she was in the House of Representatives and a past executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership, a union group that has spent millions of dollars supporting the project by electing rail-friendly politicians to public office.

Holland & Knight is a national lobbying firm that has fewer connections to the islands but more direct experience securing federal grant dollars for transportation infrastructure, including hundreds of millions of dollars for rail projects in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Representatives for each of the losing bidders declined to comment for this story.

A History With Hart

Dwyer and his firm, Williams & Jensen, leaned heavily on his past experience working with the city and HART on rail and his already established relationships with the federal delegation.

According to the proposal, Dwyer worked as a lobbyist for the project from 2005 to 2018, with contracts valued around $300,000 a year.

He was involved in securing a $1.55 billion grant from the Federal Transit Administration in 2011, and has been working in recent years to convince the agency to release the remaining $744 million that it has withheld due to problems with the project, including massive cost overruns and delays in construction.

“In personal experience in working with WJ, Denis Dwyer has proven to be extremely effective in regards to this project,” Keene wrote in his April 16 evaluation of Williams & Jensen’s proposal.

“The experience of Denis Dwyer is without comparison and he can truly ‘hit the ground running’ on this engagement, which is important given the critical timeline that HART is operating under.”

The only category where Dwyer fell short, according to the scoring criteria, was price.

Williams & Jensen came in second with a total contract price of $1.395 million over six years. Dentons US offered the best value at $888,000 while Strategies 360 had the highest total bid at $1.62 million.

 

Aloha Stadium rail station.
Honolulu’s rail project is more than a decade behind schedule. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HART’s selection of Williams & Jensen raises questions about whether the agency complied with Hawaii’s procurement code, especially the provisions regarding ethics.

For example, the statute says, among other things, that public employees involved in government procurement should “remain independent from any actual or prospective bidder” and “encourage economic competition” by “ensuring that all persons are afforded an equal opportunity to compete in a fair and open environment.”

The code calls for public employees to “remain impartial” while at the same time avoiding any social interactions with potential bidders and other conflicts of interest.

Violations could be punishable as a misdemeanor, with fines and removal from office.

Randy Ishikawa, a city attorney who represents HART, did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.

The emails show Ishikawa was in close communication with Martyn, Kahikina and other HART officials as they discussed the nuances of the procurement process and whether any of those talks should take place in public such as during the public portion of a HART board meeting.

Nearly all of Ishikawa’s responses were redacted from the emails released by HART, with HART officials citing the need to protect attorney-client privilege.

Krishna Jayaram, First Deputy Corporation Counsel, directed questions about factual matters to HART.

“And as our department provides legal advice to HART, we are not available to discuss further,” he said in an email.

Even though HART officials and the companies who bid on the contract won’t talk about what happened, at least one state senator is.

Earlier this week, Sen. Kurt Fevella called on the FBI and the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office to launch a criminal investigation.

“To me this is fraud. It’s fraud at its highest capacity,” he said.

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