Months before a lucrative rail consulting gig went out for public bid, top officials at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation were determined to award that contract to the board’s former chairwoman, Colleen Hanabusa, internal records show.

HART Board Chairman Toby Martyn declared as early as Dec. 7 that he wanted to hire Hanabusa as a lobbyist who could help with rail’s growing budget woes and would report directly to the board that she used to lead, according to email exchanges that the rail agency released to Civil Beat on Monday via a public records request.

Martyn also discussed the contract with Hanabusa over lunch Feb. 16 — 10 days before the solicitation was released publicly, according to those exchanges. “Can you please give me a quick update on the status of the consultant contract?” Martyn asked Cindy Matshushita, the board’s longtime executive officer, prior to that lunch appointment.

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

Colleen Hanabusa speaks to media after Mayor Blangiardi announced the appointment of Hanabusa to the HART Board.
Colleen Hanabusa announced in May that she will serve on the HART board as an unpaid volunteer instead of pursuing a lucrative contract. New emails show that rail board leaders wanted her to fill that consultant role months before the contract went out to bid. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The bid sought someone with 20 years of experience practicing law, at least 10 years experience at either city- or state-level of government in legislation and policy making, and at least five years of experience at the federal-level in legislation and policy making.

Nonetheless, Martyn and Hanabusa said Monday that there were other potential candidates who could have qualified for the rail consultant work had they applied. They included former Mayor Kirk Caldwell, former Congressman Charles Djou and former Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, Hanabusa said.

The deal, valued at nearly $1 million if extended over its maximum six-year term, would have involved Hanabusa in lobbying the state Legislature to extend state tax revenues for rail, helping free up federal dollars that have been withheld from the project for over six years and helping to resolve the HART board’s burdensome quorum and voting issues, among other tasks.

However, several weeks after securing the contract award Hanabusa opted to turn it down without collecting payment amid growing scrutiny and questions about the procurement process.

Instead, she’ll return to the volunteer board as a member in July, replacing retired construction executive Glenn Nohara, who’s leaving as his term expires.

When she joined Mayor Rick Blangiardi in May to announce that change of heart, Blangiardi denied that the move was to allow Hanabusa, a former congresswoman, to save face.

“I don’t want to be the distraction,” Hanabusa said during that May 11 press conference. “I want to see this project completed.”

HART Toby Martyn
An email from HART Board Chairman Toby Martyn to other agency staff on a consultant position meant for Colleen Hanabusa. Courtesy: Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation

On Monday, HART Interim Director Lori Kahikina said that the city’s Corporation Counsel told her there was no procurement violation despite multiple email threads with the clearly stated goal of bringing Hanabusa on board.

Nonetheless, Kahikina said she did send the 500-page record on the procurement to Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Jan Yamane to determine if there were any ethical violations in the process.

That same record shows Kahikina discussing the Hanabusa contract with board leaders and HART personnel on Dec. 30, just two days after her hire was publicly announced and several days before she officially started the job.

In that conversation, HART board member Lynn McCrory asked Kahikina whether it was possible to use a procurement process to hire Hanabusa faster but also without “uncomfortable appearances.”

Kahikina said the procurement would have to go through HART but that she could try to expedite it because “I know we need her on (board) for the session starting next month,” referring to the 2020 Legislative session.

“Actually, we need Colleen on board much earlier than next month,” McCrory replied.

‘I Was Absolutely Surprised’

On Monday, Hanabusa, who served on the HART board in 2015 and 2016, said she didn’t know the HART board had been crafting a contract specifically with her in mind.

She had several conversations with Martyn starting in November about the volunteer board’s quorum issues. They also discussed whether the rail agency might hire her directly as a HART employee, she said.

She said that Martyn is the only HART board member whom she recalls having spoken to between November and Feb. 16, when they met over lunch. That was also the date when Martyn asked her whether she’d be interested in bidding on the contract, she said.

Martyn, meanwhile, said Monday that he did not recall having lunch with Hanabusa before the solicitation went public. He did not dispute the emails saying that he did, either.

“If the emails suggest that then I’m sure it’s true,” Martyn said.

HART Rail guideway columns along Aolele Street as we look towards Airport. December 22, 2020
HART leaders wanted Hanabusa to lobby the state Legislature to extend state tax revenues for rail and help free up federal dollars that have been withheld from the troubled project for over six years, among other tasks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hanabusa said she didn’t decide to bid until some time after that lunch. When she did proceed, she said she was surprised to see how closely the qualifications reflected her own credentials.

“What they came up with was not something I expected,” Hanabusa said Monday. “No one had forewarned me … I was absolutely surprised.”

Martyn, meanwhile, said he was not involved in crafting the minimum qualifications for bidders. “The one thing that’s important for you to understand is that I had no say in how the RFP (request for proposals) was structured,” Martyn said. “Frankly, I didn’t see it until it went out.”

The packet released Monday did however show email conversations in December between Martyn, HART staff, and the city’s Corporation Counsel on how to best advance the consulting contract through the HART board’s public meetings.

Much of the exchange is redacted, but at one point Martyn said “in open session, my plan is to talk about the desire for the board to engage a consultant to assist us with certain matters related to state and federal funding. Do you think this is adequate disclosure for open session?”

The response to that question from Corporation Counsel officials representing HART is also redacted.

Martyn said Monday that the board has yet to decide on whether to hire another applicant for that consultant role.

Read the full procurement package provided by HART here. The exchanges referenced above appear after the 220-page mark:

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