Jennifer Potter was settling into a new job at the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission when a high-profile visitor paid her an unannounced call.

It was August 2018 and Hawaii’s governor had appointed Potter as a commissioner on the PUC. An influential quasi-judicial body, the three-person commission regulates powerful industries including telecom, energy and transportation.

One month into her job, Potter was at her desk when an administrative assistant buzzed her line. A Kevin Johnson was there to see her.

She didn’t know who Johnson was, but the new commissioner told the secretary to let him in.

Johnson, a  three-time National Basketball Association All-Star and a two-time mayor of Sacramento, California, walked into Potter’s office and sat down. Potter admits to being a tad starstruck after learning who Johnson was.

“I thought wow, here’s an NBA star and former mayor, you know. How cool I get to meet this guy,” Potter said. “I learned the hard way over time.”

Kevin Johnson, former mayor of Sacramento and former three-time NBA All-Star, is a lobbyist for Hu Honua. Dianna Miller/Wikimedia Commons

Johnson had researched Potter’s bio and knew she had lived in California’s capital city. Initially he made small talk about life in Sacramento and Potter’s former position at Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

Before long, the real reason for Johnson’s visit became clear. The former Phoenix Suns point guard and first Black mayor of Sacramento was there to discuss Hu Honua, a controversial bioenergy project struggling to get off the ground on Hawaii island.

The retired basketball great told Potter he was looking forward to her support on the project.

“They were already starting to lobby me, and they were using him as that person,” Potter told Civil Beat.

Potter told the PUC’s chief counsel about Johnson’s visit. The lawyer told her to stop communicating with Johnson. Talking to a commissioner about a pending matter is like trying to gain a judge’s ear about a matter before the court.

Johnson continued to reach out to the commissioner by phone. Potter, who stepped down from the PUC in November, said she told Johnson she couldn’t speak with him. Hu Honua’s application for a long-sought power purchase agreement was being litigated before the Supreme Court and it might end up back at the PUC, which is exactly what happened.

But Johnson wanted Potter on his side. A yes vote from Potter would be crucial for winning PUC approval for a 30-year energy contract between Hu Honua and Hawaiian Electric.

Hu Honua, a planned bioenergy plant on Hawaii island, has been trying to gain regulatory approval for years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Johnson’s efforts to win Potter to Hu Honua’s side were part of a pattern. In early 2017, the former athlete and politician was a year out from his second term as Sacramento mayor and starting to establish himself in the business world. He’s since gone on to open restaurants and launch a venture capital firm to assist Black entrepreneurs. When Johnson stopped by Potter’s office, he had recently landed a role with one of the country’s wealthiest families.

Johnson had become the Hawaii point person for Jennifer Johnson, daughter of billionaire Charles B. Johnson. Her family built and owns a large share of Franklin Templeton Investments, one of the world’s largest money managers. Jennifer Johnson was funding Hu Honua and chose Kevin Johnson – no relation – to make the project happen. His goal was to win public and government support, along with regulatory approval, of Hu Honua.

His efforts over the years have included community outreach and relationship-building with powerful and influential people. Some of his activities have occurred in the open while much has been shrouded in secrecy. But public records requests and interviews make it clear that Johnson has been pushing the project with Hawaii officials for years.

Jennifer Potter, who stepped down as a PUC member in November, recalled Kevin Johnson lobbying her for the Hu Honua project early on. Courtesy: Governor's Office

Besides building ties with influential lawmakers, Johnson pressed top officials of Gov. David Ige’s administration to issue public endorsements of Hu Honua, asked and got the state energy officer to edit radio scripts for Hu Honua ads, arranged meetings with the consumer advocate in hopes of influencing the outcome of the PUC process, given presentations to the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and other groups and more.

But key to success was winning Potter’s support, and that effort ultimately failed. In a 2-1 vote, the PUC denied approval for the project in May. The matter is now back before the Hawaii Supreme Court after Hu Honua appealed the commission’s decision.

Despite years of setbacks, Kevin Johnson is not giving up.

After almost six years of trying to sell the project, Johnson continues to work for Hu Honua, also called Honua Ola Bioenergy. He finally registered as a lobbyist with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission in April.

Johnson refused to speak with a Civil Beat reporter. Through a public relations firm, he asked for questions to be sent in writing, a request Civil Beat declined because it would not afford the opportunity to have an open-ended conversation that allowed for follow-up questions and clarifications. Johnson also did not respond to text messages or voicemails.

Who Is Kevin Johnson?

Hu Honua has generated both support and controversy since the tree-burning project was first proposed around 2008. A mountain of court documents, regulatory filings and news articles has piled up over the years.

The plant, located in Pepeekeo north of Hilo on the Big Island’s windward side, is a former plantation-era power source that’s been refurbished. With origins dating back to the late 1880s, the plant used to burn leaves and stalks of sugarcane to create energy. Later it burned coal, producing power for the Big Island grid until 2004.

Hu Honua formed to convert the plant into a tree-burning enterprise, helping Hawaii island transition away from its dependence on fossil fuel. Side benefits would include revitalizing the island’s forestry industry and creating new jobs. But it’s been a complicated, costly and uphill battle ever since.

Hu Honua’s main financial backer is Jennifer Johnson. As president and chief executive of Franklin Resources Inc., whose global brand is Franklin Templeton Investments, Johnson has deep pockets. According to the company’s 2021 annual report, the firm had over $1.5 trillion in assets under management. The company has over 100 offices in 30 countries around the world.

Jennifer Johnson’s personal wealth is what keeps Hu Honua alive.

Jennifer Johnson’s personal wealth has kept the Hu Honua biomass plant alive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Johnson told Civil Beat that her ex-husband’s best friend, Harold “Rob” Robinson, introduced her to the project and she became a passive investor. The two were longtime family friends and owned a vacation home together, court papers say. They formed a limited liability company called SilverBelt Investments, which was later renamed SilverBelt Portfolio. The company had several real estate projects on the mainland and the Hawaii power plant, according to court records.

Robinson was the project manager for Hu Honua. But he and Jennifer Johnson had a falling out and she fired him on March 12, 2018.

A lawsuit ensued, with Robinson accusing Johnson of wrongly firing him, breaching their contract and cutting him out of deferred compensation and financial perks. He denied her counterclaims of incompetence, self-dealing, co-mingling of funds, inaccurate financial forecasting and other alleged misconduct.

The parties settled in the summer of 2021 on undisclosed terms.

Kevin Johnson, known to fans as KJ, entered the picture in January 2017 to help out Jennifer Johnson. She was a mother of five with a high-intensity job. She told Civil Beat she didn’t have time for hands on management of Hu Honua.

Kevin came on board to see that Hu Honua got off the ground. His wife, Michelle Rhee, also joined the effort, researching how tax credits could be used to attract outside investors to the project. Rhee is a former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school district and education reform advocate.

“He’s very effective.” — Jennifer Johnson, Hu Honua investor

Kevin and Jennifer had known each other for over a decade. She said they met at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Jennifer Johnson’s father, Charles, is the team’s principal owner. Franklin Templeton has a campus in Sacramento, Kevin Johnson’s hometown and the city where he was twice elected mayor, in 2008 and 2012. Kevin Johnson had spoken to Jennifer Johnson’s employees on a few occasions and played basketball with her kids.

When Jennifer told him about Hu Honua and its struggles, Kevin offered to lend a hand. He had experience launching large and sometimes controversial projects, including helping to prevent the Sacramento Kings basketball team from moving to Seattle by getting a new arena built, Jennifer Johnson said.

“He’s very effective,” she said.

Jennifer Johnson recalled traveling to Hawaii shortly after Kevin came on as the owner’s representative of the project. Within six months, everyone in Hawaii seemed to know who Kevin Johnson was, from the FedEx carrier to random people on the street.

“He’s just a very likable guy,” she said.

Not everyone sees Kevin Johnson in such a favorable light. Numerous sexual assault allegations have dogged him for years, accusations that he has consistently denied. No charges have ever been filed.

Cease And Desist

The power purchase agreement between Hu Honua and Hawaiian Electric would allow Hu Honua to burn locally grown eucalyptus trees, turning steam into electricity to help power some 14,000 Big Island homes.

The PUC had twice approved Hu Honua’s application, in 2013 and 2017. Both times those approvals were challenged in court, with judges remanding them to the commission for reconsideration. Investors had already sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the plant to cover construction, labor and legal costs. By the time Kevin Johnson arrived on the scene, pressure was mounting to get the plant operating.

The PUC held the key. Johnson needed to get two of the three commissioners to vote yes. Jay Griffin, PUC chair at the time, had soured on the project, unconvinced the plant would be carbon negative, or even neutral, as Hu Honua’s lawyers argued, or that the high energy costs were justified. Leo Asuncion, who voted in favor of Hu Honua last May, was a supporter. Potter’s yes vote was essential.

Sacramento Mayor and three-time NBA All-Star Kevin Maurice Johnson speaking at Los Angeles City Hall praising NBA commissioner Adam Silver's announced sanctions against then Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. 4/29/2014
Former Sacramento Mayor and three-time NBA All-Star Kevin Maurice Johnson, seen here speaking at Los Angeles City Hall in 2014, was told by the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office to not discuss the Hu Honua case with PUC members. Scott Liebenson via Wikimedia

For his efforts to woo Potter, Kevin Johnson received what amounted to a polite cease-and-desist letter from the Attorney General’s Office in October 2020.

“Under the present circumstances of actual and threatened litigation as well as the potential of further proceedings before the Public Utilities Commission, I think it best that the commissioner not discuss the matter with Mr. Johnson,” John Price, deputy attorney general, told lawyers representing Hu Honua.

“I am sure you can appreciate the appearance of impropriety that other participants in the matter and the public in general might infer if a Hu Honua representative and a commissioner were to have such communications.”

Johnson’s outreach to Potter wasn’t the first time he tried to influence the PUC. Randy Iwase, who chaired the commission from January 2015 to December 2018, said Johnson approached him and his staff several times.

“I recall him coming to the PUC and meeting people on the staff,”  Iwase said in an interview.

Former PUC Chair Randy Iwase said Kevin Johnson would come to the commission’s office and meet people on staff. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Iwase, who led the commission from January 2015 to December 2018, said he personally took calls from Johnson regarding the status of the project.

Iwase said he didn’t consider Johnson’s activities lobbying because PUC commissioners aren’t allowed to be lobbied, unlike members of the state House and Senate.

Whether it met the legal definition of lobbying, Johnson’s attempts to influence the PUC over Hu Honua might be considered an ex parte communication, an improper attempt to sway a commissioner.

Stemming from the Latin phrase “on one side only,” ex parte communications are considered unethical because judges – or in this case, PUC commissioners – must decide cases based on evidence and arguments presented in court.

“If a person or party approaching the Commissioner is asking for or discussing information about an active docket before the Commission that is not strictly procedural and without other parties to the proceeding present, this could constitute an unauthorized ex parte communication,” said Deborah Kwan, PUC communications officer.

Kevin Johnson's Voicemails

When Johnson first approached Potter in August 2018, the PUC docket for Hu Honua was closed because the company had an appeal pending before the high court. When he left voicemails for her in the fall of 2020, the PUC had rejected Hu Honua’s waiver from competitive bidding and the company had appealed the decision to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Because the dispute was before the court and the PUC had closed the docket, Johnson’s actions might not meet the legal threshold for an ex-parte communication.

But that’s a hyper-technical interpretation of the rule, said attorney Isaac Moriwake, who has appeared in matters before the PUC many times. What Johnson was doing was a clear-cut case of “backdoor lobbying,” in Moriwake’s view.

“You’re not supposed to be contacting commissioners at all. No question. Hu Honua or any of its lobbyists should know that that was completely out of bounds,” said Moriwake, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific regional office in Honolulu.

“Imagine if people were doing that to a judge? You would be undermining people’s faith in the fairness of the legal system,” Moriwake said.

It clearly steps over the line for a lobbyist to contact a commissioner and try to talk about the outcome of a case if there’s any chance it’s going to be remanded, said Richard Wallsgrove, assistant professor of law at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

It’s also a matter of due process, the idea that everybody has an equal chance under the law. Showing up at a decision-maker’s office for a closed-door meeting cuts everybody else out, he said.

An Invited Guest

Kevin Johnson’s attempts to win approval for Hu Honua took multiple forms over the years, from public meetings, Chamber of Commerce presentations, visits with legislators and state officials, the Big Island mayor and Hawaii County Council members.

Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi introduced Johnson on Jan. 18, 2017 in his opening day remarks at the start of the legislative session.

Kouchi said he had been a guest of Johnson’s in Sacramento and admired how the former mayor had set up charter schools, reading and after-school programs for kids, and projects to move people from homelessness to housing. Kouchi said Hawaii and Sacramento share many challenges and he hoped to tap into Johnson’s expertise.

“Our problems are not unique to the rest of the world, and where we have others who have found success, why not find the smart people to help us solve our problems?” Kouchi told lawmakers and invited guests, including Johnson.

Now that Johnson was no longer Sacramento mayor, “he has some free time, so we’re hoping that we’ll see more of him here in Hawaii,” the Senate president said.

Senate President Ron Kouchi, third from left, posted this photo on his Facebook page after he and Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, far left, met with Jennifer Johnson, the primary investor in Hu Honua, in 2018. Courtesy: Ron Kouchi/Facebook

It was around then that Johnson started making regular trips to Hawaii.

Robinson’s attorneys said in court papers that Johnson was being paid $50,000 a month and had a 5% stake in any project upside. If Hu Honua started making money, Johnson would get a cut.

Robinson’s legal team and his financial damage experts – people qualified to assess how much money Jennifer Johnson allegedly owed Robinson – touted the project as a huge money-maker. Jennifer’s attorneys called it a “sink hole for cash” and a “multi-million dollar financial disaster.”

Robinson helped get the proposed energy contract between Hu Honua and Hawaiian Electric extended from 20 to 30 years, court papers say.

“The 10-year extension is forecast to increase the total contract revenue from approximately $900 million to close to $1.5 billion generating as much as $200 million of upside cash flows available to Johnson,” according to Robinson’s lawsuit.

A 5% cut would mean several million dollars for Kevin Johnson.

Jennifer Johnson said there will be “zero project upside” even if Hu Honua eventually gets the green light.

“I will lose a ridiculous amount of money on this project even if it moves forward,” she said.

Robinson’s projection that she would make $200 million from Hu Honua is absolutely false, Jennifer Johnson said.

As far as what Kevin Johnson is being paid, Jennifer said she didn’t know that exact figure but would be suspicious of any number offered by Robinson’s lawyers. She said a monthly fee is paid to Kevin Johnson’s company for his Hu Honua work. Kevin Johnson’s lobbying firm is listed in state records as Seven Ventures Inc.

Hawaii County Council member Valerie Poindexter recalls meeting with Kevin Johnson multiple times on the Big Island, referring to him as “this slippery kind of guy.” Valerie Poindexter

Valerie Poindexter, a former Hawaii County Council member, said she met with Kevin Johnson on several occasions on the Big Island and got emails from him trying to win her support.

In her view, Hu Honua was using Johnson’s star power to try to win the hearts and minds of people on the Big Island for the tree-burning plant, which was controversial from the start. One reason Hu Honua faces some stiff opposition is because the PUC found that the plant would significantly raise typical monthly bills to ratepayers. The other major ongoing criticism is the amount of greenhouse gases the plant would potentially emit.

“I considered him to be this slippery kind of guy who would say things and not really follow through,” Poindexter said.

Poindexter said Johnson was promising to make donations to community organizations and was wining and dining legislators who could try to influence the PUC.

“He was lobbying all that time,” she said.

Former state Sen. Laura Acasio spent part of a day with Johnson on a tour of Hu Honua along with state senators from the Ways and Means Committee. The tour, organized by WAM Chair Donovan Dela Cruz, was on June 15, 2021, she said.

“The intent was definitely to gain support of the legislators for Hu Honua,” said Acasio.

Poindexter was skeptical of Hu Honua and some of her constituents opposed the project. She told Johnson not to organize any community meetings in her district unless he spoke with her first. Once, when she was off island, she heard he had spoken at a community meeting in Laupahoehoe, which was in her district. She felt Johnson had gone behind her back.

 

“That was when I knew it was getting dirty,” Poindexter said.

North Kohala resident Lisa Andrews attended the meeting. She said it was clear that Kevin Johnson was Hu Honua’s front man, charged with selling the project to island residents. Given Hawaii’s ethnic and cultural diversity, Andrews said he fit the bill.

“You have this retired basketball player. You know, he’s in good shape. He’s a good-looking guy, not Caucasian, not European. And he’s going to come in there and what are you going to say?”

Hu Honua expected the audience to be bowled over by Johnson, she thought. But like Poindexter, she wasn’t buying it. Rather than being charmed by the former professional athlete, she peppered him with technical questions about the project.

“He couldn’t answer anything,” Andrews said.

Richard Nurre, a resident who lives near the plant, said he also attended a community meeting when Johnson first started working for Hu Honua.

“I couldn’t understand what his role was at the meeting,” Nurre said.

He introduced himself to Johnson after the meeting ended and asked what he did for Hu Honua. Johnson said his job was to “go around and shake hands and greet people.”

“I thought that was kind of a strange profession, but I watched, and he shook my hand and he moved around,” Nurre said. “It seemed a little strange that they would have him there if that was the only reason.”

Rosemary Gonzalez, who also lived near the plant, said she attended five or six meetings at which Johnson spoke.

Johnson told audiences he was there to get the job done and would stick with it for as long as it took, Gonzalez said. He would ask what kinds of things the community wanted in exchange for their support of the project.

“You could tell he was trying to use who he was to overpower us,” Gonzalez said.

Courting State Officials

Besides community meetings, Kevin Johnson was attempting to sell Hu Honua behind the scenes in the halls of government, among other places.

The former basketball star targeted officials including Scott Glenn, the state’s chief energy officer, and Mike McCartney, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and former chief of staff to Gov. David Ige.

According to emails obtained through public records requests, Johnson began reaching out to Glenn in the spring of 2020 to set up a meeting.

Email between Kevin Johnson, Scott Glenn and Mike McCartney
Emails from Kevin Johnson to Scott Glenn and Mike McCartney. Click to read the full email exchange and radio transcripts. 

He was also simultaneously courting McCartney. Johnson would meet with them individually. Other times they would meet as a group, the emails indicate.

Email between Kevin Johnson, Scott Glenn and Mike McCartney
Emails from Kevin Johnson to Scott Glenn and Mike McCartney. Click to read the full email exchange and radio transcripts. 

Glenn told Civil Beat that Johnson, at first, was trying to get up to speed on Hawaii’s energy scene, the economy and the state’s political landscape.

He also wanted to discuss the PUC’s denial of a Hu Honua waiver from competitive bidding, a significant setback for the project. In later meetings, Johnson attempted to get Glenn’s approval of a memorandum of understanding between Hu Honua and the state that would enshrine a collaboration over invasive species management.

If the PUC signed off on Hu Honua, the plant would burn eucalyptus trees as its primary target species. But Hawaii island has a problem with invasive trees like albizia, gorse and strawberry guava. The MOU intended to have the state authorize the collection and delivery of weed trees to Hu Honua to burn as a fuel source.

As a former director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control, Glenn liked the idea of removing non-native plants from the landscape. But he never signed off on the memo. Glenn said the state energy office has no role to play in invasive species management.

Johnson also asked Glenn to review radio scripts for paid ads promoting the power plant. Glenn complied, tweaking the copy and offering edits to improve the ads’ accuracy.

DLNR Scott Glenn during Legislature hearing. 13 july 2016
Scott Glenn, the state energy chief, said Kevin Johnson repeatedly asked him to publicly endorse the Hu Honua project, but he declined to do so. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Glenn said the phone calls and meeting requests from Johnson didn’t strike him as anything unusual. It’s common for developers to stop by and try to sell their projects, he said. People hired to get a project approved can be pushy and persistent. Johnson was no exception.

But Glenn said he made it clear that he wasn’t going to publicly endorse Hu Honua because of concerns over the high cost of energy the plant would produce and the greenhouse gas emissions.

Glenn told Johnson the PUC was the one he needed to convince, not the state energy office, and that the project would live or die on its own merits.

“I was asked by him on multiple occasions to put out some kind of public statement” in support of Hu Honua, Glenn said.

McCartney was also getting lobbied to come out in support of Hu Honua.

He said he had about at least a dozen meetings with Johnson, pretty much every time the former mayor flew in from California.

“On those trips it seemed he was always networking, outreaching, and educating as many people as possible,” McCartney said. “I respect him and believe he tried his best in good faith to get his project approved. He just fell short with the PUC.”

McCartney also declined to publicly endorse Hu Honua.

“To me, the project was always going to be a challenge to complete and gain approval for” given the multitude of issues it faced, McCartney said.

Governor Chief of Staff leads Governor David Ige and DLNR nominee Carlton Ching into press conference after Governor Ige withdrew his nomination. 18 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Mike McCartney, Gov. David Ige’s former chief of staff, said he respects Kevin Johnson’s effort to get the project approved but that it ultimately fell short. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hu Honua President Warren Lee said Kevin Johnson put together an advisory board of prominent business people to help move the project along.

Asked if Johnson’s job was to lobby lawmakers, Lee hedged.

“I’m not sure. I just know he talked to a lot of people,” Lee said.

Robert Harris, executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said the state’s definition of lobbying under current law is “fairly narrow.” It pertains to attempts to influence legislation, a rule-making process or ballot issues.

Matters before the PUC are more akin to contested case hearings, not rule-makings, and don’t fall under the scope of Hawaii’s lobbying statute, Harris said.

McCartney said Johnson’s activities concerned him less than what he described as an intense, pro-Hu Honua pressure campaign by various senators with control over the state budget. McCartney said it was directed against public employees who voiced skepticism over Hu Honua.

“Those employees were not able to take an opposing policy position without being bullied, harassed or intimidated for fear of losing their jobs or funding for their programs,” McCartney said.

McCartney said he doesn’t think Kevin Johnson instructed lawmakers supporting Hu Honua to threaten or pressure agency staff. Still, he hopes that such tactics don’t get used again and that Hawaii can move beyond “the politics of blame and bullying.”

‘More Enjoyable Topics’

Consumer Advocate Dean Nishina was also a target of Johnson’s attention, based on emails obtained through a public records request. Nishina’s office has long raised concerns about Hu Honua, expressing doubt in PUC filings that the project would be in the public’s best interest.

Emails indicate Nishina met several times with Johnson starting in May 2019. Other meetings appear to have taken place in September 2019, January 2020, August 2020, September 2020, August 2021, March 2022 and April 2022.

Johnson emailed Nishina on Oct. 17, 2020 and asked for a meeting. The next day, a Sunday, three minutes after midnight, Nishina responded, saying he had “a couple of filings that are due on Monday. So, I’m not sure of my availability until they’re done.”

On Monday evening, Johnson said he was “headed back to cali early … planning on returning in nov … will try to get in your calendar … stay safe sir – and thanks again.”

Less than an hour later, Nishina replied, saying he looked forward to the next discussion and hoped they could talk about sports.

Email between Kevin Johnson and Dean Nishina
Emails between Kevin Johnson and Dean Nishina. Click to read the full email exchange. 

“Maybe we will have the opportunity to discuss more enjoyable topics like NBA roster moves and why the Bulls front office don’t seem to be positioning the team for a decent run at the playoffs.”

Nishina did not make himself available for an interview with Civil Beat despite multiple requests.

A Terrible Investment

Despite all of Johnson’s efforts over nearly six years, Hu Honua appears no closer to winning state approval than when he started working on the project.

In its appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court over the PUC’s rejection of the project, Hu Honua’s legal team said that after years of delay and more than $500 million invested, the company “cannot afford to ride this merry-go-round much longer.

Jennifer Johnson said she remains committed to the project and has no plans to walk away even though Hu Honua “has been a terrible investment.”

“It has taken an emotional toll on me, a financial toll on me. But that doesn’t mean you throw in the towel. It means that you try to figure out how to navigate through,” Johnson said.

Jennifer Johnson says she won’t walk away from the Hu Honua project despite it being a “terrible investment.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Community surveys the company paid for in 2020 and 2021 show a majority of Hawaii island residents have a favorable opinion of Hu Honua and the opposition stems from a small, vocal minority, she said.

As far as Kevin Johnson and his wife, Jennifer Johnson said she’s happy to have them both still working on the project.

“He’s doing this for me as a friend and he’s stuck with it,” she said. “He’s got a lot more things he needs to be doing.”

Kevin Johnson, left, has met with several officials and appointees of Gov. David Ige, right, who leaves office Monday after two terms as governor. Courtesy: Travis Okimoto

Hu Honua’s quest for a license to operate could hinge on the outcome of the latest Hawaii Supreme Court appeal. If the court remands the matter to the PUC as it has before, the plant might fire up after all. The PUC’s composition has changed since May when the agency rejected the energy contract with Hawaiian Electric.

Griffin and Potter have since left the commission. Asuncion, a Hu Honua supporter, is chair now and two new commissioners have joined: lawyers Naomi Kuwaye and Colin Yost.

Prior to his appointment, Yost was an owner of RevoluSun, an Oahu-based renewable energy company, and held roles in business and law. RevoluSun is “one of the leading residential photovoltaic installers in the nation,” according to Yost’s bio.

Kuwaye spent 10 years at the Ashford & Wriston law firm before joining the PUC. During her confirmation hearing, Kuwaye acknowledged having written a legal memo on Hu Honua’s behalf but said she would have no problem going against former clients.

When Sen. Joy Buenaventura asked if she would recuse herself from voting on Hu Honua if the matter came back to the PUC, Kuwaye dodged the question.

“I don’t want to give a firm decision one way or another,” she said.

Focusing On Strategy

In his deposition in the California lawsuit between Robinson and Jennifer Johnson, Kevin Johnson was asked if he thinks Hu Honua will ever achieve financial success.

“I don’t think it’s going to make money at this point,” Kevin Johnson said in his sworn statement.

Johnson said he didn’t know how much the plant will ultimately cost and how much revenue it might generate over its 30-year life. He said he doesn’t focus on “technical stuff” but more on strategy, such as whether the project backers should push the PUC for a faster timeline.

Johnson decided to officially register as a lobbyist in Hawaii last spring — he’s not ready to throw in the towel on Hu Honua. His persistence in plugging the embattled project may not be too surprising given Johnson’s performance on the basketball court. He plays to win.

“A competitive nature is one of my strengths,” he told The New York Times in 2008 during his first run for Sacramento mayor, a race he won.

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