Donovan Dela Cruz and Michelle Kidani have taken political strong-arming to an alarming level as they work to control business and financial issues, their colleagues say.

Two powerful state senators are pressuring colleagues to derail confirmation of Scott Glenn to lead the Hawaii Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.

Glenn received a 4-to-1 vote in favor of his appointment on March 8, usually an indication that a gubernatorial nominee will receive a favorable floor vote in the full 25-member Senate.

But Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Senate Water and Land Committee that approved Glenn, says Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Sen. Michelle Kidani are coercing colleagues to oppose the nomination in a vote that could happen as early as Wednesday.

“I was alerted on Friday that two of my members are going to now change their votes,” Inouye said Sunday, who described herself as “dumbfounded” and “disturbed” at the turn of events. Senators usually defer to the judgment of committee chairs.

Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz and Michelle Kidani during the Senate floor session on March 13. The two are characterized as bullies by some of their colleagues. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Those senators named by Inouye as possibly reversing their votes are Water and Land members Stanley Chang and Angus McKelvey. Committee Vice Chair Brandon Elefante voted for Glenn while Republican Kurt Fevella voted against him.

After hearing that their votes might change, Inouye said she confronted Chang and told him he was risking his credibility as a senator.

“If I had recognized hesitancy on his part with regards to the nominee, I would allow him to vote his conscience at the hearing,” she said. “He asked a lot of questions and apparently he must have been satisfied. He voted straight up in my discussions with him.”

Inouye said she shared similar concerns with McKelvey in writing but did not hear directly from him.

McKelvey denied that he was being pressured by anyone to flip his vote on Glenn’s nomination. Rather, he told Civil Beat, he’s faced pressure to keep his vote the same.

“I reserve the right to vote in committee a certain way and on the floor a certain way,” the Maui senator said.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye at a recent hearing at the Capitol. She said Kidani and Dela Cruz are interfering with the confirmation process of Scott Glenn to the Office of Planning and Sustainability. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

McKelvey said that he’s been gathering feedback on Glenn’s nomination since his confirmation hearing from within the planning office and related agencies. He also said he’s talked to his constituents and that their “voices are the ones I usually try to echo.”

“At the end of the day, I’ll review all that, talk more story, and we’ll see where we’re at,” he said.

Elefante did not respond to an inquiry Monday. Chang didn’t respond to a phone message.

During Glenn’s confirmation hearing March 8, Chang questioned Glenn about his office’s approach to housing and how it advises agencies on where to site new projects. In his view, the planning office has been “reactive, not proactive” when it comes to housing.

“You talk about conversations rather than leading from the front,” Chang told Glenn during the hearing before asking if the office knew how many housing units are needed to meet the state’s housing demands and where to put them.

Glenn estimated that the state needs between 50,000 to 100,000 new units and said he’s willing to work with lawmakers to get closer to that goal.

Kidani, Dela Cruz and Senate President Ron Kouchi did not respond to inquiries on Monday.

Intense Pressure

The pressure from Dela Cruz and Kidani, close political allies, is said to be intense. Kidani is the Senate vice president and part of leadership while Dela Cruz leads the Ways and Means Committee, which plays a leading role in determining which bills pass or die and how money is directed to senators’ districts through capital improvement projects.

Inouye, who has participated in the confirmation process for four governors, said she has never seen a similar kind of behavior regarding the confirmation process in her 30 years in politics.

“I am just disappointed because, you know, incidents of this kind erodes the credibility, trust and ethical standards that the voters entrusted on us to do the people’s work,” she said. “I always believe in good ethical conduct and the standard that our voters trusted us with.”

Thus far, Inouye is the only senator to speak out publicly against her colleagues in leadership. And criticism of Dela Cruz at the State Capitol has been common knowledge for years.

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But other senators, House representatives and members of the Green administration said that the political maneuverings of Dela Cruz and Kidani have risen to a new and ugly level, perhaps even reaching a tipping point that could shake the Capitol further.

Civil Beat interviewed numerous lawmakers and others who agreed to speak to reporters only if their names were not used for fear of retaliation by Dela Cruz and Kidani.

They use words like “bully” and “arrogance” to describe the two senators. They worry that general agreement on critical policy issues such as affordable housing, tourism, energy, taxes, government reform and more could be jeopardized — even though Green and running mate Sylvia Luke were elected in a landslide in November.

Chris Sadayasu, Gov. Josh Green’s nomination for DBEDT director, may have trouble getting confirmed by the Senate because of political pressure by key senators. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That election also saw many new faces elevated to the Legislature, including 18 new members in the 51-member House. Some of the old factions that held sway particularly in the 25-member Senate no longer hold.

And with Luke, the former House Finance Committee chair, now the lieutenant governor, Dela Cruz is not nearly as constrained in budget and bill decision making. The new Finance chair, Kyle Yamashita, is a far more passive figure.

Dela Cruz has already flexed his political muscle by playing a key role in the rejection of other Green cabinet nominees, sometimes in concert with Sen. Donna Kim, another strong personality at the Legislature, and other allies.

Ikaika Anderson withdrew his name to lead the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands while the nomination of Chris Sadayasu to lead the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism is on life support because of a Senate committee’s 4-to-1 rejection of him last week. A vote on Sadayasu could come this week, too, but so could his withdrawal from consideration.

Green said he was meeting with Sadayasu Monday afternoon to discuss what to do moving forward.

Appointees Going Down?

DBEDT is the agency that is tied to key interests of Dela Cruz, Kidani, Kim and Sen. Glenn Wakai, another ally, interests that have been in recent headlines: the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the Aloha Stadium, the Hawaii Community Development Authority and the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.

Dela Cruz is a strong backer of the Agribusiness Development Corp., the subject of a recent scathing state audit. Lawmakers moved the ADC under DBEDT last year. Dela Cruz championed the Public Land Development Corp., which was repealed in 2013 after being lambasted by environmental groups.

From left, State Planning Director Scott Glenn with Inouye, DLNR Deputy Director Laura Kaakua and Sen. Angus McKelvey after Glenn and Kaakua cleared a confirmation hearing. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Broadly speaking, what all the agencies have in common is control over land use. Dela Cruz’s former chief of staff and current business partner, Dane Wicker, is now the deputy director at DBEDT. Dela Cruz has pushed to have Senate confirmation of deputy directors in addition to directors.

Dela Cruz, Kidani and Kim were also reported earlier this year by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to call for the resignation of University of Hawaii President David Lassner, a major institution for developing the economy through research and innovation programs.

Lassner dismissed the call as part of a long-standing pattern of certain state senators being disappointed with the direction of UH. Dela Cruz, Kidani, Kim and Wakai have been outspoken on the need for the state to evolve economically and not be so reliant on tourism.

Hu Honua

Up until last week Glenn’s nomination did not appear to be in trouble. He is highly qualified to lead the Office of Planning and Sustainability, which analyzes and provides information to the governor to guide state policies and strategies.

According to testimony in broad support of his nomination, Glenn has headed the Office of Environmental Quality Control and Hawaii State Energy Office. He also co-chairs the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission.

Glenn holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawaii and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Inouye said she was not sure why Glenn was being targeted, but she said “it seems to be pointed toward Hu Honua.”

Hu Honua BioEnergy is a biomass project on the Big Island which last week saw its appeal of a Public Utilities Commission decision restricting its operation denied by the Hawaii Supreme Court. The high court agreed with the PUC’s determination that burning trees to produce energy was not in the state’s interest.

Dela Cruz, Kidani and Wakai headlined a fundraiser last year that was hosted by Noni Toledo, a Hu Honua lobbyist. During the 2022 session the senators sponsored bills designed to help Hu Honua. Both measures were vetoed by then-Gov. David Ige.

Inouye this session introduced a bill that seeks to accelerate the pace of state regulatory approval for renewable energy contracts through the Legislature. Critics say that the bill is intended to help Hu Honua, which is in Inouye’s district. Inouye said the bill, which was co-introduced by Dela Cruz and is backed by Wakai, would help all projects.

Senate Bill 72 passed the Senate March 7 but has not been heard in the House and is likely dead.

For his part, Scott Glenn rejected pressure from Hu Honua advocates to publicly endorse the plant due to concerns about costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

In testimony on Dela Cruz’s primary bill regarding the plant, Glenn said last year that his State Energy Office was “concerned that as written, establishing such constraints in statute may interfere with the development of an optimized system that balances energy security, grid reliability, and cost control based on available technologies, resources, and needs of Hawaii’s energy systems at the time.”

In an interview earlier this month, the governor expressed disappointment that his nominees were not being given fair hearings. He said he is not satisfied with the “old politics” that brought down Anderson and threatens other appointments.

Last Thursday, Green invited members of the Democratic majority to Washington Place for a pau hana. Most were in attendance including Wakai. But Dela Cruz, Kidani and Kim were no shows.

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