Last-minute maneuvering in a closed-door conference committee created a way for key senators to oust a critic of a proposed tech park.

Vassilis Syrmos’ position as a director of the quasi-independent Hawaii Technology Development Corp. was supposed to be free from politics.

But that didn’t stop a clique of lawmakers led by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz from mounting a secretive, 11th-hour campaign to get rid of Syrmos, a University of Hawaii vice president who has openly questioned a project in Dela Cruz’s district.

Now, all that’s standing in the way of Syrmos’ termination is Gov. Josh Green’s veto power.

Green declined to comment when asked whether he would veto House Bill 999, which Dela Cruz and his political allies transformed from a simple appropriations measure into a tool to remove Syrmos — with no explanation or chance for public testimony. But the governor said he opposes bills targeting particular people.

“I will have a fundamental problem with any bill that targets a specific individual,” Green said in a statement. “Bills that target specific individuals would seem cruel and unethical.”

Vassilis Syrmos.UH VP research Innovation outside Bachman. 23 may 2017
Lawmakers last session passed a law that would effectively remove Vassilis Syrmos, the University of Hawaii’s vice president for research and innovation, from the board of a state agency tasked with commercializing research and innovation to promote economic development. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

The Legislature’s passage of House Bill 999 shows how lawmakers can exert pressure, even on agencies that are set up to be independent. It also represents an example of the strong-arming some have accused Dela Cruz and fellow Sen. Michelle Kidani of engaging in this session. Joining Dela Cruz in the last minute machinations to remove Syrmos were Dela Cruz’s fellow Ways and Means Committee members: Kidani and Sens. Lynn DeCoite and Glenn Wakai.

The next step will be a test of whether Green will stand up to Dela Cruz, the influential chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who has significant control over how state government spends taxpayer money.

Attached to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the Hawaii Technology Development Corp.‘s central purpose is to “facilitate the growth and development of the commercial technology industry in Hawaii.” That includes doing things like connecting Hawaii tech companies to opportunities and helping turn locally developed innovations and technology into commercial enterprises.

So when the session began, lawmakers introduced bills at Green’s request pushing the HTDC to be a catalyst for such initiatives.

Gov. Josh Green’s legislative package included bills to help grow technology-related businesses to diversify Hawaii’s economy. But Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and three colleagues shaped the measures into bills to remove an agency board member who has criticized one of Dela Cruz’s pet projects. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

For example, at the governor’s request, House Speaker Scott Saiki introduced HB 999, which hearkened back to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In light of the State’s ongoing economic recovery from the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the State must accelerate its economic diversification efforts through substantial, strategic, coordinated investments,” the bill said.

It called for $20 million for the HTDC to direct toward things like business accelerator programs, manufacturing and the defense sector, including aerospace and technology to reduce climate change.

It also imposed accountability measures requiring the agency to report on outcomes the spending produced.

Also introduced at Green’s request was House Bill 991. It called for the HTDC to provide matching funds to Hawaii businesses that received federal grants for innovation. The bill also would have provided money to Hawaii manufacturers that installed renewable energy systems to reduce electricity costs.

Notably, neither bill mentioned anything about changing the makeup of the HTDC’s board. Nor did House Bill 991’s Senate companion.

But that started changing when Dela Cruz got his hands on the bills.

Hawaii Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz needs support of the Hawaii Technology Development Corp. to make sure a proposed campus for public safety agencies gets built in his district. After House lawmakers killed a bill to provide the corporation $100 million to build infrastructure for the project, Dela Cruz steered $50 million into the state budget for the project anyway. (Screenshot/Hawaii Technology Development Corp.)

One thing that’s become clear in the fight over the Hawaii Technology Development Corp. is that Dela Cruz needs it to ensure one of his pet projects gets developed.

The First Responders Technology Campus and Cybersecurity Data Center would occupy vacant agriculture land roughly the size of Kapiolani Park and the Honolulu Zoo in Dela Cruz’s district. It is essentially a campus for various public safety agencies. The campus is being developed by the HTDC, despite the agency’s mandate to facilitate the development of commercial technology.

The HTDC’s previous executive director, Robbie Melton, defended the agency buying up land for the project on the basis that the first responders who will occupy the campus use technology.

Dela Cruz didn’t return calls for comment but in the past has echoed Melton.

“Well, it’s a tech park, that’s how we labeled it from the beginning,” he told Civil Beat in 2017. “We’re dealing with cybersecurity. We’re dealing with new technology. And we have HTDC’s involvement in it.”

Unpersuaded by such arguments, House lawmakers this past session killed a $100 million appropriations bill for the campus. But Dela Cruz slipped $50 million into the state budget anyway, steering the money to the HTDC to build infrastructure for the campus.

Dane Wicker, Dela Cruz’s former aide and current business partner who is also a deputy director for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said the department requested the money on the HTDC’s behalf. DBEDT’s acting director, Jimmy Tokioka, has said he supports the project.

But among those who have questioned the project is Syrmos, vice president for research and innovation of the University of Hawaii, who serves on the HTDC board.

Lawmaker: Board Member Had To Go

Bills frequently change as they go through the legislative process, and HTDC funding bills were no exception. What was unusual was that the Ways and Means Committee added a provision unrelated to funding economic development programs. Instead, the provision targeted Syrmos.

Specifically, when House Bill 991 made it to the committee, Dela Cruz and fellow committee members added language changing the criteria for who could serve on the HTDC.

According to the provision, which was added with no explanation or public discussion, the university vice president whose duties included commercializing research could no longer serve on a state agency whose duties included commercializing research. Dela Cruz’s provision said the UH board representative had to come from the UH board of regents.

The bill was sent to conference committee for the House and Senate to work out differences. But Saiki killed the measure by dismissing the House conferees assigned to work on it.

In an interview, Saiki explained he sent the conferees home because it wasn’t clear why the senators had added the provision: there was no discussion or debate explaining the change, much less supporting it.

“The rationale for making the change was not clear,” he said.

The Hawaii Technology Development Corp. this week posted a job listing for a new executive director. The position will be key to the support of a controversial first responders park in central Oahu. (Screenshot/HTDC/2023)

Dela Cruz took no chances with House Bill 999. When the bill reached the Ways and Means Committee, Dela Cruz and his colleagues merely tweaked proposed funding for programs. There was no mention of axing Syrmos.

But when the measure went to conference committee, Dela Cruz made his move.

Assigned to the Senate conference committee were Dela Cruz’s Ways and Means colleagues: Kidani and DeCoite as co-chairs and Wakai as a member, the bill’s status sheet shows.

But as the vote on a conference draft approached on April 28, Dela Cruz tag-teamed Kidani, replacing her as co-chair, the status sheet shows. Then, before the final vote, Kidani and Dela Cruz switched places again.

The Senate priority was getting rid of Syrmos, not funding economic development initiatives through the HTDC, says Rep. Daniel Holt, chairman of of the House Economic Development Committee who was co-chair of the conference committee for the House.

By the April 28 conference committee meeting, funding for economic development programs had been reduced by $6 million.

“In the conference committee I was told if I wanted the $6 million appropriation, I had to include that language” effectively firing Syrmos, Holt said. “I do not like the provision, but I was put in a position: I needed to save those programs.”

Dela Cruz, DeCoite, Kidani and Wakai did not return calls for comment.

Why The HTDC Board Makeup Is Important

The composition of the HTDC’s board could have a significant impact on the agency’s direction, so it’s important who’s on it. The same goes for the staff running the agency.

Coincidentally or not, at the same time lawmakers were maneuvering to get rid of Syrmos, the HTDC’s executive director, Len Higashi, quietly resigned. Higashi did not return calls for comment, but the state’s human resources agency posted the opening for his replacement on Monday.

Under the HTDC’s statute, the board hires the executive director. So the board has the power to ensure its new executive director supports Dela Cruz’s project.

It’s unclear whether the hiring of a new director also was a point of contention between Syrmos and Dela Cruz.

In an interview, Syrmos acknowledged he disagreed with Dela Cruz on the first responders park. But he declined to comment on whether he and Dela Cruz also disagreed about Higashi’s role in the agency and Higashi’s potential replacement.

“This is a sensitive personnel matter that should be resolved within HTDC without any outside political interference,” Syrmos wrote in a statement. “As such, I have no comment on the subject.”

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