The Hawaii State Ethics Commission said there’s no conflict of interest, although Dane Wicker shouldn’t take any action that affects tea.

The business partner of a powerful senator is on his way to being confirmed as deputy director for Hawaii’s economic development agency.

Dane Wicker, a former chief of staff to Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and co-owner of Kilani Brew with the senator, cruised through a Senate committee hearing on his nomination Tuesday.

The same may not be true for his boss, Chris Sadayasu, who is expected to have a much rougher confirmation hearing on Thursday.

Gov. Josh Green thinks that opposition to Sadayasu’s nomination has more to do with personal politics than actual disagreements on policy or qualifications.

“It’s hard for us to do our job if old politics gets in the way of new plans,” Green said in a recent interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board.

Debate over Gov. Josh Green’s Cabinet positions is picking up in the Senate. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Senate President Ron Kouchi defended the process, saying it’s the Senate’s duty to vet Cabinet nominees.

“I was troubled when the governor said we should just give him a chance and let everybody he nominates get confirmed, just because,” Kouchi said Tuesday in a floor speech.

A small handful of the governor’s Cabinet members had cleared their initial committee hearings as of Tuesday. They must still be approved by the full 25-member Senate.

Starting A Tea Business

Wicker’s company, Wicker Enterprises, is listed as a registered agent of Kilani Brew, the tea company he owns with Dela Cruz and Todd Tashima, who state salary records show is an employee of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Kilani Brew, which specializes in mamaki tea, was organized in 2018.

Wicker’s financial disclosure indicates that he earned between $10,000 and $25,000 from Wicker Enterprises, including rental income. The entity is described as a holding company on the financial disclosure statement.

Dela Cruz started reporting ownership interest from Kilani Brew in 2020, although he has not reported any income from the company since then. When asked about the tea business and whether it constitutes a conflict when it comes time for the Senate to vote, Dela Cruz said he doesn’t make “determinations on ethics.”

The Senate’s rules on conflicts of interest apply to legislation in which a senator has a “direct financial interest.” The rules do not have any provisions on nominees before the Senate. The decision over whether any vote constitutes a conflict of interest is left to the Senate president in the case of a senator or the House speaker in the case of a representative.

Dela Cruz, who represents Wahiawa and is a strong farming advocate, said the business is a small startup and none of the partners earn any income yet. Kilani Brew has a 1-acre lot in Kunia on which it grows mamaki tea.

“We did it because we wanted to lead by example, show we can get it done and produce value-added products,” Dela Cruz said.

The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism is responsible for bringing the state out of the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic as well as directing the future of tourism in the islands.

Recently, lawmakers added redevelopment of Aloha Stadium and the management of former plantation lands to DBEDT’s list of duties. Many of Green’s initiatives on affordable housing and other programs are being funneled through the agency. 

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, left, and DBEDT Deputy Director Dane Wicker, right, own a tea business together called Kilani Brew. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018)

The agricultural sector is one area in which DBEDT may have a hand in beefing up. Entities with interest in agriculture like the Hawaii Farmers Bureau and the Ulupono Initiative testified in support of Wicker’s nomination on Tuesday.

Wicker said he sought advice from the State Ethics Commission regarding his role as the deputy of DBEDT and a co-owner of the tea company. He was told that the business didn’t pose a conflict of interest, even in dealing with agriculture, so long as he does not take any action that could affect tea in particular. The Ethics Commission also did not find any conflicts with his business relationship with Dela Cruz, he said.

Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris confirmed Wicker’s recounting of the advice.

Past Conflict

However, Wicker said the business had created a conflict while he worked in Dela Cruz’s office. The state ethics law prohibits legislators and employees from business engagements. Wicker said he only discovered that after leaving the Senate for a job at the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting.

“Before I could recuse myself and get off of it, I went to the city, and the conflict was gone,” Wicker said.

Mamaki tea varies across the islands of Hawaii, depending on conditions. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022)

He described his role in the business as bookkeeping and tending to tea plants a couple times a month on weekends. Wicker said he worked on a farm as a kid and is pursuing a master’s degree in planning from the University of Hawaii to keep career options open after his tenure at DBEDT is up, which is currently December 2026 unless he gets reappointed.

Former state Labor Director Scott Murakami described Wicker as “very intelligent and quick to grasp complex issues.” Murakami pointed to Wicker’s work in helping with the state’s unemployment system that became overwhelmed during the pandemic.

Wicker said he has a strong working relationship with Sadayasu, and the pair plan to advance a strategic plan for DBEDT to tackle various sectors of the economy. Wicker said Sadayasu has taken the lead on housing initiatives, the state’s big tourism contract, Aloha Stadium and a new proposed hydrogen hub. Wicker has found other areas to fit in, including helping out the various program managers under DBEDT and working to develop the agency’s strategic plan.

A Rough Start

DBEDT’s leadership had a rough initial hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee earlier this year. State directors’ performances before the budget committee this session have been a sort of litmus test for new Cabinet appointments. 

Senators cited Ikaika Anderson’s poor performance before the money committee as one reason for voting against his nomination to lead the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands this year.

Sen. Donna Kim questioned Wicker, who worked for several years on the committee under Dela Cruz, over how he approached that initial hearing. 

“I guess I was expecting a lot more,” Kim said Tuesday. “If your skills were not utilized, I need to wonder how much of your experience will be utilized as a deputy.”

Wicker, who was appointed deputy director in December, said adjusting to be part of the administration was a challenge.

Dela Cruz said he has not had much interaction with Sadayasu since his appointment to lead DBEDT. But he also said it appeared the department struggled during that hourslong hearing.

“They were on the lower end of the preparedness level,” he said in an interview.

Whether that bodes trouble for Sadayasu on Thursday and in the coming weeks this session is yet to be seen.

Sen. Glenn Wakai, the vice chairman of the committee overseeing Sadayasu’s confirmation, has clashed with DBEDT leadership before.

Wakai mounted a strong campaign against former DBEDT Director Mike McCartney’s nomination in 2019. McCartney cleared the Senate with 15 votes to 10.

Tensions spilled over into 2020, when in the midst of the pandemic, McCartney twice refused to appear before the Senate, citing accusations of bullying by senators.

Sadayasu was the former tourism brand manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority between 2016 and 2021. That overlaps with a time period in which Wakai allegedly bullied HTA employees after his wife was forced to resign from the agency, according to a 2019 state investigation. Wakai denied that he harassed or bullied anyone.

He declined to comment for this story and instead referred inquiries to the Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee Chairwoman Lynn DeCoite.

DeCoite’s office said she declined to comment prior to the hearing on Thursday.

Speaking generally about Cabinet appointments to the Senate, Kouchi encouraged lawmakers to take their duties seriously. He pointed to Agriculture Director Sharon Hurd, who initially struggled through budget hearings but eventually “rose to the challenge.” Hurd cleared a preliminary vote on Monday.

“We’ll continue to go through the process fairly, and for those who can articulate the vision and give us the confidence that they are going to come out with the best product for the people of Hawaii, we will continue to advance those candidates,” Kouchi said.

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