The company’s founder, Christopher Dawson, is part of a well-known Hawaiian family that has many ties in business, political and social circles in Hawaii.

The head of a prominent Native Hawaiian contracting conglomerate is stepping down from his leadership role as federal authorities continue to investigate alleged financial crimes involving the organization that has won more than $1.4 billion in government contracts over the past 15 years.

Christopher Dawson, the founder and chairman of the Hawaiian Native Corp., will take a leave of absence and new leadership has been put in place, the corporation said Thursday.

The Hawaiian Native Corp. is a registered nonprofit with the state of Hawaii that owns 11 for-profit subsidiaries that receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts primarily from the Department of Defense.

Many of those contracts are obtained through special contracting provisions designed to benefit Native Hawaiians.

Dawson, who is part Native Hawaiian, will also step down as CEO of his Hawaiian Native Corp. subsidiaries, which are collectively operated under the brand name DAWSON.

Just last week, even as the federal investigation was underway, DAWSON was given a contract to oversee maintenance and repair of firefighting systems at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility.

Dawson group tax evasion fbi law enforcement raid
The DAWSON offices in downtown Honolulu shut down for a day after federal agents executed a search warrant earlier this month as part of an investigation involving alleged financial crimes. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

According to an email statement sent to Civil Beat, Dawson will relinquish all operating, management and decision-making responsibilities of Hawaiian Native Corp. and its DAWSON subsidiaries during the investigation to “avoid being a potential distraction.”

In the meantime, Allen Hoe, a well-known Native Hawaiian attorney and veterans advocate who serves on the Hawaiian Native Corp. board, will take over as chairman of the nonprofit while Dawson is on leave.

David Johnson, who was DAWSON’s president and chief operating officer, was named as CEO of the operating companies.

The Hawaiian Native Corp. also said that it is adding its federal lobbyist, Andy Winer, to its board of directors. Winer is the executive vice president of Strategies 360 and former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a key Democratic appropriator and chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee.

The Hawaiian Native Corp. and DAWSON have been working closely with Winer in recent days to respond to the issues surrounding the federal investigation.

The change in leadership comes as the Hawaiian Native Corp. and DAWSON try to distance their for- profit companies from the criminal probe while maintaining their status as a preferred government contractor.

Details of the investigation have not been made public.

What’s known is that federal agents executed a search warrant at the Hawaiian Native Corp. headquarters in downtown Honolulu on June 27, seizing company computers and cell phones. A number of different agencies were involved, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, which conducts criminal investigations for the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Chris Dawson, seen here on the cover of a polo magazine, is a major defense contractor in Hawaii. (Screenshot/2023)

Federal authorities have refused to comment on the specifics of the raid or the investigation.

But in a series of statements to the press, the Hawaiian Native Corp. and DAWSON officials have tried to tamp down any concerns that the probe might be targeting their operating companies or affect their ability to fulfill current and future contracts.

In the statement to Civil Beat, the Hawaiian Native Corp. said that search warrant sought “financial information focused on alleged tax irregularities of the non-operating entities and persons. The investigation does not allege and is not investigating any irregularities of the DAWSON operating companies.”

Johnson, the new CEO of DAWSON, reiterated this stance in his own written statement that made clear that the companies are cooperating with federal investigators as they continue their probe.

“Transparency is important to us and we are fully supporting the government investigators, the DAWSON ‘ohana, and our federal government clients during this time,” Johnson said. “We are confident that our continued cooperation with the investigation will resolve this matter.”

Christopher Dawson did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.

He has hired Michael Purpura, a California-based lawyer who specializes in white-collar criminal defense and other complex civil litigation, to represent him.

Purpura is a former federal prosecutor who has deep ties to Hawaii. He’s a former partner at the Honolulu-based law firm Carlsmith Ball and once served as an adviser to the Hawaii Innocence Project. He also represented former President Donald Trump during his first impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate.

Purpura declined to be interviewed.

The Dawson Ohana

Dawson comes from a prominent Native Hawaiian family. His mother, Beatrice “Beadie” Dawson, is a respected Native Hawaiian advocate and lawyer while his father, Donald, was a successful businessman from Canada. 

Beadie Dawson graduated from Punahou School and served 15 years as a deputy attorney general. She also represented a group of Kamehameha School alumni during the Bishop Estate scandal involving financial mismanagement and political cronyism within the trust. 

Beadie Dawson is considered an original founder of the Hawaiian Native Corp. and DAWSON conglomerate of companies, and still serves as an emeritus board member on the nonprofit. 

Chris Dawson’s sister, Donne Dawson, also serves on the Hawaiian Native Corp. Donne Dawson currently works as the Hawaii state film commissioner whose responsibility includes administering an incentive program that doles out tens of millions of dollars each year to movies and television shows that film in the islands.

A screenshot of Chris Dawson’s website shows the leadership of the DAWSON conglomerate of companies, including Dave Johnson, far left, who is the new CEO, and Chris Dawson, second from left. (Screenshot/2023)

Dawson describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” who is “dedicated to creating wide-scale economic and cultural impact.” 

According to his website,, he founded the DAWSON brand in a “flash of inspiration” in 1994 when he sketched the hibiscus flower logo on a napkin while sitting in the concession area of the Pioneer Plaza in downtown Honolulu. 

He briefly flirted with a life in politics when in 1998 he ran as a Republican for the state House of Representatives. He lost handily to another first-time candidate, Democrat Sylvia Luke, who today is Hawaii’s lieutenant governor.

Since then Dawson’s company has grown to become a major government contractor with more than 1,200 employees working across 47 states and 20 countries. 

Dawson built his empire in large part through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) business development program, which was designed to help socially and economically disadvantaged individuals compete for federal contracts. 

The Hawaiian Native Corp. is classified as a Native Hawaiian organization, or NHO, under the 8(a) program. Under SBA rules, NHOs can receive special contracting preferences so long as their business activities “principally benefit economically disadvantaged Native Hawaiians.” 

Those preferences include access to hundreds of millions of dollars in sole source contracts through the Defense Department. 

Over the past few years, Dawson and others have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress to expand the program. 

So far, they have buy-in from all four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, including Schatz and U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, who has introduced legislation to allow NHOs to get sole source awards from all federal agencies.

If successful, the change would put NHOs on equal footing with qualified Native American tribes and Alaska Native corporations.

Dawson himself has long been a vocal advocate of the 8(a) program.

In 2004, after one his 8(a) companies, Dawson Group Inc., received a $30 million contract to do environmental cleanup on Navy bases in Hawaii, Guam, South Korea and Japan, Dawson told the Honolulu Advertiser that the program shouldn’t be looked at as an automatic handout of federal cash. 

He said securing the 8(a) designation was costly and he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process of being declared disadvantaged by the SBA. 

“There’s a miscommunication in the 8(a) community that you’re going to get flooded with work because you’re an 8(a),” Dawson said. “The military’s a great client, absolutely awesome. But if you want to get the work, you’ve got to be quicker, faster, cheaper and better than anybody else.”

Hawaii Polo Life

For Dawson and other NHO companies, the 8(a) program has been particularly lucrative. 

Since fiscal year 2008, federal contracting data shows that Dawson and its affiliates have received more than $1.4 billion worth of contracts and orders from federal agencies to do work on everything from construction and building maintenance to cybersecurity and counterintelligence.

While the vast majority of Dawson’s work is in the defense sector, the company has also received contracts in other parts of government, including to bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

During the same time frame, NHO-owned firms overall experienced their own spike in federal contracts. 

Government contracting data shows that in fiscal year 2008, those companies had $73 million worth of contracts with federal agencies. By fiscal year 2022, that figure had ballooned to $1.8 billion.

While Dawson’s business endeavors have been a focal point of his career, it’s his love of polo that seems to drive his ambition.

Dawson is a prominent figure in the international polo community and he boasts on his website of traveling the world to play with world class players. As the site declares, “His success in the sport has given him a platform to share and celebrate Hawaii’s history, values and aloha spirit abroad.”

Dawson is the founder of the nonprofit Hawaii International Polo Association, which seeks to expand participation in the islands, including among children.

He’s even launched his own brand — Hawaii Polo Life — that includes numerous lines of “luxury athleisure wear” and a magazine that’s “focused on blending ocean culture with world-class polo in Hawaii.”

Polo is regarded as a sport for the elite, something that can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in at the highest levels. Dawson himself has sponsored a Hawaii women’s polo team to compete in the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship in South Florida from 2019 to 2022.

He also recently purchased a large barn in Argentina to breed horses as part of a partnership with Adolfo Cambioso, considered among the preeminent polo players in the world.

Property records show Dawson owns at least three homes in the U.S., including two in Hawaii and one in Palm Beach County, Florida. The most expensive of the three is a beachfront house on Oahu’s North Shore that he purchased for $3.5 million in 2017.

Army Gold polo player Allen Hoe,left, along with Army Black polo player Chris Dawson present Jeannine Wiercinski, wife of U.S. Army Pacific commanding general, Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski with a trophy in June 2012 at Fort Shafter following the Army polo match held to commemorate the Army’s 237th birthday celebration. (U.S. Army photo/2023)

Community Commitment

Measuring how much Dawson and the Hawaiian Native Corp. have given back to the Native Hawaiian community can be difficult.

The SBA requires all 8(a) firms owned by tribal governments, Alaska Native corporations and NHOs to submit annual reports that detail the benefits provided to their respective communities, whether through job assistance and scholarships or funding cultural programs.

But oversight has proven lax and there’s little transparency surrounding the program.

For instance, there’s no set requirement in SBA rules that dictates what percentage of profit should be used for charitable giving, and the annual reports filed with the agency are not readily available to the public.

According to Dawson’s website, the Hawaiian Native Corp.’s “collective economic impact” in the Native Hawaiian community was several million dollars in 2021, which included more than $3 million in direct monetary contributions.

The Hawaiian Native Corp. details some of its charitable giving on its own site, and in recent years says it has donated to groups, such as the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace.

The size and scope of the donations appear to vary.

In 2021, for example, it helped sponsor the broadcast and livestream of the Merrie Monarch Festival and produced three 30-second TV commercials celebrating King Kalakaua that were aired in Olelo Hawaii. The Hawaiian Native Corp. described the spots as “cultural vignettes.”

The nonprofit has sponsored a series of artistic installations across the islands, including a POW!WOW! exhibit at the Bishop Museum that featured a number of Native Hawaiian muralists.

It also organized a “National Day of Service” in which dozens of DAWSON employees helped build raised bed garden plots at the Lunalilo Home nursing facility that serves the elderly.

Paula Akana, executive director of Iolani Palace, said she counts the Hawaiian Native Corp. and DAWSON as among its top donors, at least in the NHO 8(a) community.

She said in 2019 the organization paid the palace’s electric bills, which equated to nearly $100,000. It’s also given direct contributions to the Iolani Palace Foundation.

The Dawson family, Akana said, has long standing ties to the palace through Beadie Dawson, who was among a group of community members who pushed to restore and refurbish the historic landmark and cultural icon.

“They’ve done only good for us,” Akana said. “There’s never been anything negative, and they’ve never asked for anything in return.”

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