Months before she was awarded a lucrative rail-consulting contract, former Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa was already doing some of the work envisioned in that deal to help the rail agency’s governing board, newly released emails show.

Specifically, Hanabusa was drafting bills for state lawmakers to consider in the 2021 legislative session that aimed to fix the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board’s quorum and voting challenges, which occasionally hamper the board’s ability to take action for the beleaguered transit project.

HART emails obtained through a public records request by Civil Beat on Tuesday further indicate Hanabusa was monitoring legislation during the most recent session on the rail agency’s behalf.

“Comforting to know that we have Colleen working for us,” HART Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina told the agency’s board chairman, Toby Martyn and its vice chairman, Hoyt Zia, in a Feb. 2 email.

HART Board nominee Colleen Hanabusa speaks with Mayor Blangiardi at a press conference.
HART’s award of a lucrative board consulting contract faced scrutiny when it was announced in April. In May, Hanabusa joined Mayor Rick Blangiardi to announce she would decline that contract and fill a seat on the HART board instead. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Tuesday, however, Kahikina clarified that Hanabusa was not being paid for that legislative work and that neither Kahikina nor other HART staff were in direct contact with Hanabusa at that time.

“She wasn’t working with us, (and) she wasn’t working for us,” Kahikina said.

Instead, Hanabusa was just communicating with Martyn, Kahikina added.

On Wednesday, Hanabusa also said that she made the choice to draft that legislation on her own after having discussed the quorum issues with Martyn.

“I don’t know why she says that,” Hanabusa said, referring to Kahikina’s email. “They just kind of play loosey with the way they refer to things. I think it’s unfortunate … but I would never make the representation that I’m doing any work for them, because I wasn’t.”

Hanabusa’s comments follow the recent scrutiny over her April 28 award by HART for an 18-month contract worth $216,000 to lobby on behalf of the rail agency’s board.

That deal included working to fix the quorum challenges, which require eight of the board’s nine voting members to vote yes for an item to pass.

If extended over its maximum six-year term, Hanabusa’s contract would have been worth nearly $1 million. Hanabusa canceled the contract in May, however, as questions increased over how it was awarded. She opted to fill a seat that’s soon opening on the volunteer HART board instead.

On Wednesday, Hanabusa disputed that her drafting bills to fix the quorum issues was done in any way on HART’s behalf. Her draft measures were introduced by the Legislature’s leaders, Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki.

Nonetheless, that pro-bono effort occurred just weeks before a Feb. 12 lunch in which she and Martyn discussed Hanabusa potentially bidding on a contract to serve as a paid board consultant who would perform similar tasks to address the quorum situation.

Martyn called the timing coincidental.

“I can assure you there was no connectivity,” he said Tuesday, referring to Hanabusa’s work and the board’s simultaneous effort to hire a consultant who could do the same thing.

“I can’t speak to the timing and coincidental-ness of it all but I can tell you with complete honesty that the two weren’t tied.”

When the board consultant contract went out to bid, Hanabusa was the sole applicant.

‘That’s Just The Way I Am’

Hanabusa said she didn’t draft the quorum legislation in anticipation of a future reward from the HART board, which she had previously chaired until her return to Congress in 2016.

“That’s not it. That’s just the way I am. I just tend to do that when I see something that needs to be fixed,” she said Wednesday. “It interested me personally. It wasn’t for anybody. It definitely wasn’t for the HART board and it wasn’t for HART because I was not working for anyone.”

Much of the scrutiny over Hanabusa’s contract award centered on how the bid solicitation’s qualifications so closely matched her own credentials, raising suspicion that it was designed chiefly with her in mind.

Earlier this week, a separate 500-page trove of documents and emails obtained by Civil Beat through a records request revealed that agency leadership intended as early as December to bring Hanabusa on board as a consultant.

Lori Kahikina, Director Dept of Environmental Services City of Honolulu gives press conference about a COVID-19 positive workers that are in quarantine now.
HART Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina said in emails during the early days of the 2020 legislative session that it was “comforting to know we have Colleen working for us” and referenced her drafting bills to help fix the challenges affecting rail governance. She later clarified that Hanabusa was not working for HART. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

When asked about that Monday, Hanabusa said that she had discussed the board’s ongoing quorum and voting challenges with Martyn starting in late 2020. They had also discussed her joining HART directly as an employee, she said.

However, neither she, Martyn nor Kahikina mentioned that Hanabusa also drafted bill language to fix those quorum challenges.

HART leaders say there were no procurement violations in the contract award, but they’re still checking whether the process violated the city’s ethics policies.

Martyn said he began talking with Hanabusa in late 2020 as board members looked to replace HART’s previous executive director, Andrew Robbins. At the time, they were considering whether to hire Hanabusa’s former congressional chief of staff, Michael Formby.

Hanabusa and Formby had worked closely together during their time on the HART board in 2015 and 2016, and Formby briefly served as the rail agency’s acting executive director when Dan Grabauskas was ousted as its leader.

Eventually the board went with Kahikina. Formby is now Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s managing director.

Read the emails on Hanabusa’s HART-related bills here:

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