WASHINGTON — Outgoing U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele is calling for an investigation into the federal lobbying efforts of a company that’s trying to secure a 40-year lease extension for a shopping mall in Hilo that sits on Hawaiian homelands.

The Prince Kuhio Plaza is a subsidiary of Brookfield Property Partners, a global real estate firm with offices in the U.S., Canada and China, among other places.

Federal lobbying disclosures show that the plaza hired two different lobbying firms, Arnold & Porter Kay Scholer and Strategies 360, to represent its interests in Washington.

Kai Kahele announces running for Hawaii Governor at Hilo Boys and Girls Club gymnasium.
Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele is worried that lobbying efforts on behalf of a shopping mall in Hilo have crossed the legal line. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In particular, the plaza is trying to influence decision-making at the U.S. Interior Department, which has questioned whether granting a lease extension to the mall would be legal without congressional approval.

At issue is Hawaii Act 236, which became law in 2021 and allows the state to extend public land leases by up to 40 years.

Lease Extensions

So far, the Prince Kuhio Plaza and its parent company are among the first to try to take advantage of the law in an attempt to extend its lease on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property although the current term does not expire until 2042.

On Nov. 22, Kahele sent a letter to DOI Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt asking for an investigation into whether the plaza’s lobbyists had followed federal lobbying disclosure laws.

While Kahele noted that the lobbyists for Arnold & Porter Kay Scholer and Strategies 360 had all filed paperwork in 2022 stating that they were working on behalf of the plaza, he said he had received information from DOI employees that lobbying conversations about Act 236 may have begun as early as 2021.

“I believe it is in the Department’s best interest to make any outside influence on this matter publicly transparent as the current action violates Federal law and could shortchange beneficiaries,” Kahele wrote. “I also request that you assess to what extent these improper or undisclosed lobbying efforts have affected Department of Interior personnel.”

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Kahele, who is Native Hawaiian, expressed misgivings about Act 236 almost immediately after it became law.

He has openly questioned whether Act 236 violates federal law, including the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, which set aside approximately 200,000 acres of land to create permanent homesteads for Native Hawaiians.

Kahele’s complaint comes just weeks before the end of his congressional term. In January, he will no longer hold elected office.

The DOI has similarly raised concerns about Act 236 and whether DHHL, the agency responsible for overseeing the land trust and serving its Native Hawaiian beneficiaries, is trying to circumvent federal law and regulation.

In recent months, the DOI has sent a series of letters to state officials — including DHHL Director William Aila and Hawaii Attorney General Holly Shikada — outlining its concerns.

The DOI solicitor general, Robert Anderson, told Shikada that it was his agency’s opinion that Act 236 must first be reviewed by the interior secretary and receive congressional approval before the mall lease could be extended because it deals specifically with the use of Hawaiian homelands that were set aside for Native Hawaiians by the U.S. government.

Until that happens, he said, any attempt to extend the lease for Prince Kuhio Plaza could “violate Federal law and constitute a breach of trust by the State.”

Macy's is one of the anchor stores at Hilo's Prince Kuhio Plaza. Photo: Tim Wright
Macy’s is one of the anchor stores at Hilo’s Prince Kuhio Plaza. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022

Kahele did not respond to requests for an interview to elaborate on his concerns about the lease extension and how it might affect the state’s ability to provide homesteads to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.

A spokesperson for the DOI’s inspector general said the agency received Kahele’s complaint, but could not comment specifically on the case. The inspector general has the authority to investigate the matter itself or refer it to an outside agency, such as the U.S. Department of Justice, if criminal activity is suspected.

Hawaiian Homelands

The Prince Kuhio Plaza has hired a number of lobbyists in recent years as it sought to win approval of a longer lease.

Act 236 was ostensibly meant to provide long-term stability to businesses leasing public lands.

But commercial leasing of Hawaiian homelands has become increasingly controversial, especially as DHHL officials and others in state government have repeatedly failed to provide adequate land and housing to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.

The waitlist for a homestead has ballooned to more than 28,000 people and several have died waiting for land that was promised to them.

Hawaii Ethics Commission records show the mall’s parent company spent more than $72,000 in 2021 on lobbyists, including John Sabas of Carlsmith Ball.

Among the federal lobbyists working for the plaza is Andy Winer, the former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

Winer’s involvement is noteworthy in part because Schatz is the current chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which provides oversight of Native Hawaiian issues and the Interior Department.

Winer also has political ties to Kahele.

He was a key adviser to Kahele’s congressional campaign in 2020 when Kahele sought to supplant U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who decided not to seek reelection so she could focus on a run for president as a Democrat. Their relationship soured, however, when Kahele decided to run for governor this year against Lt. Gov. Josh Green, whom Winer was already backing.

Winer declined to comment for this story.

Robin Danner, the Washington, D.C.-based chair of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations, said she was surprised to learn just how far the lobbying efforts have gone.

For generations, DHHL officials, along with others in state government including governors and legislators, have failed to adequately provide land to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries, resulting in the lengthy waitlist.

What she hopes is that the DOI will not be swayed by outside pressure and will instead continue to uphold the spirit and intent of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

“We need to stop the train,” Danner said. “What we want is to sit down and transparently be told what the options are based on the language in the current lease and what the options are based on the letter of the law.”

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