The Sunshine Blog: Now We're Shining A Light On Maui, Too - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Short takes, outtakes, our takes and other stuff you should know about public information, government accountability and ethical leadership in Hawaii.

The Blog is back: The last three weeks have been incredible, not only for journalists covering the deadly Maui wildfires but for every person in Hawaii who is watching the state’s worst disaster play out on every level.

The photos are hard to look at, the painstaking search through incinerated homes and businesses unimaginable in its toll on first responders. Many people’s lives have been changed forever. Hawaii has been changed forever.

It’s more important than ever that people pay attention to what’s going on, not only on Maui but throughout the state. Not only to what’s happening in the aftermath of the fires but to other decisions that are being made while the public attention is distracted by the terrible tragedy that must be confronted.

  • A Special Commentary Project

Already the debate is heating up over how to rebuild Lahaina and whose demands should be met. Maui County Council, the Green administration, even at some point the Legislature will all be smack in the middle of these important public policy decisions. We’re aiming to make sure the public is also well represented at the various tables.

In fact, we’ve added Civil Beat Investigations Editor John Hill to our Sunshine Editorial Board for an even deeper examination of how the public’s business is being carried out. He has a particular interest in speaking for the people on Maui who lack the political clout of some of the more vocal factions and are at risk of being shoved aside as recovery and rebuilding proceeds.

Please reach out to us at with questions, suggestions, story tips and other thoughts. As we said when we launched this project, we intend to write about anything and everything having to do with government accountability, transparency, political reform, ethical leadership and even media accountability.

Fairweather friend: Last week, Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran shrugged off concerns that he might have a conflict of interest when it comes to the Maui fires. Keith-Agaran is an attorney and his law firm is quickly headed toward representing people who may have claims or lawsuits against the state, the county or the Hawaiian Electric Co. over loss of life and property.

Now, he’s made it clear where his loyalties lie — and it’s not with the people who elected him to the Senate unless they also happen to be clients.

Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran’s law firm has been advertising heavily on social media and has held forums seeking to attract potential plaintiffs regarding the Maui wildfires. (Screenshot/2023)

Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube caught up with Keith-Agaran Sunday night at a forum for potential clients hosted by Keith-Agaran’s firm and a mainland law firm that is signing up clients on Maui.

Keith-Agaran, who holds an extremely powerful position over myriad state interests as vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has been in the Legislature since 2009, when he was appointed to a House seat. He jumped to the Senate in 2013.

When asked what he’d do if he had to choose between his constituents or his clients, Keith-Agaran said, “I’ve always had a legal practice, my professional responsibilities are to my clients so I would pick my clients.”

“If it gets to the point where it’s just such a distraction,” he told Grube about the role his law firm will play in the fires’ aftermath, “I was appointed to this position, I didn’t run for it initially so I’m not wedded to staying in the Legislature.”

Youch. Somehow, The Blog doubts he made that clear to voters when he was seeking their vote these last 14 years. Perhaps the State Ethics Commission and Senate President Ron Kouchi might not be so quick to rule “no conflict” for someone who openly is putting his personal financial gain ahead of the state’s and constituents’ interests.

Full circle: A lot has happened in the 18 months since two prominent Hawaii lawmakers were arrested and charged with taking cash bribes in exchange for manipulating legislation to benefit a certain Honolulu businessman. It was the scandal that launched the major reform efforts undertaken by the Legislature this year and gave birth to our Sunshine Project.

Milton Choy arrives at US District Court.
Milton Choy, the businessman at the center of bribery investigations this year, appeared in federal court in 2022. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Now, things are finally coming to an apparent end for Milton Choy. The key figure in the FBI sting that took down former state Sen. J. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty Cullen is scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday in federal court.

Choy also helped the feds take down a couple of Maui County officials — including one who pocketed $2 million in bribes in exchange for giving jobs to Choy’s sewage disposal company.

English, Cullen and the two former Maui employees are already well into their prison stints. We’re eager to see what punishment will be meted out to the guy who actually put all this in motion.

Better call Saul: In another case of how far they have fallen, former Navatek CEO Martin Kao appears to be gainfully employed again … at The Cheesecake Factory.

The former head of one of Hawai’s largest and most politically connected defense contractors — Martin Defense Group previously known as Navatek — has pleaded guilty to a series of federal crimes involving illegal campaign contributions and CARES Act fraud.

Martin Kao is a prominent Honolulu businessman who is now in trouble with the feds over his use of federal CARES Act money. (Hawaii News Now/2020)

Last week, Kao asked the court to modify the electronic monitoring device he has been wearing, trading in his “bulky and painful” ankle bracelet for a smart phone tracking app.

“Mr. Kao has been supervised by United States Probation Office since October 7, 2020,” the motion to modify condition of release says. “In the almost three years of supervision, there have been no concerns regarding Mr. Kao’s flight risk. He has a stable, full-time job at Cheesecake Factory, is involved in his family’s life, meets regularly with his attorney, and has appeared at all court hearings.”

Martin Kao’s current electronic monitoring device (Screenshot)

The device attached to his leg is “is especially burdensome because Mr. Kao works as a cook at an incredibly busy restaurant and is on his feet up to ten hours a day. Also significantly, swimming and the beach were an important part of Mr. Kao’s life prior to his arrest in this case. He is not able to get into the water, whether it be a pool or the ocean because of the ankle monitor. Spending time at the beach and swimming with his family is a productive activity he would like to be able to partake in and would provide a positive outlet for his own stressors.”

Sounds like Kao better call Saul Goodman. The TV lawyer of “Breaking Bad” fame ended up managing a Cinnabon in a shopping mall in Omaha. Before he went to prison.

Dane’s in charge, but we already knew that: Jimmy Tokioka, the director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, has tapped deputy Dane Wicker to run the agency while Tokioka assists with fire survivors in Maui County.

Wicker, you may recall, used to work for state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and is currently his business partner, and Wicker’s appointment to DBEDT raised not a few eyebrows, given the ambitions of Dela Cruz for economic development.

Wicker’s authority will include signing all requests that normally would go to his boss. That includes dealing with procurement, inventory, leave requests, contracts and administrative rules.

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

Counting the counties: One of the quirks of the new state law that forbids elected state legislators from holding organized fundraisers during legislative session is that it applies to county officials as well — even though they don’t officially convene just from mid-January to early May, as the Legislature does.

We previously reported on the so-so level of funds raised by Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi (who is running for reelection) and the virtual nothing raised by Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm (who has not said whether he wants a second term).

But how did the City Council do? Five of its nine members are on the ballot next year, after all. 

Andria Tupola raised just $500 during the first six months of the year and has only $15,951 in cash. But she did spend $4,500 on her campaign including for advertising, media, email databases and photoshoots.

Esther Kiaaina brought in zero money and reported $25,661 in cash. She spent less than $400, half of it for a P.O. box payment and the other for a late filing fee to the Campaign Spending Commission.

Bon dancers at the Moiliili Summer Fest at the former Varsity Theater parking lot in July. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Calvin Say also reported nothing in receipts, but he does have almost $100,000 in his war chest. He spent nearly $18,000 including $3,140 for plastic fans for bon dances and more than $14,000 to Kobayashi, Sugita & Goda for legal fees.

Radiant Cordero took in $4,012 in contributions, all but 12 cents coming from the Hawaii Carpenters Political Action Fund. She spent a couple hundreds bucks for Zoom subscription fees.

And Augie Tulba — his first name is Agusto! — received $600 in contributions, most of it from Cha Thompson of Tihati Productions. He spent very little, mostly for bank charges.

Besides Blangiardi, the only other mayor whose seat is up in 2024 is Mitch Roth. The Hawaii County executive raised $27,573, which included $4,000 from Park Hotels and Resorts of Tyson, Virginia. It’s a lodging real estate investment trust.

The Hawaii Hotel Alliance and the American Hotel & Lodging Association also gave money to Mitch. Meantime, his campaign spent $22,488 on things like food and beverages (e.g., $87.70 to L&L Hawaiian Barbecue).

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read this next:

House Oversight Committee Will Launch Federal Probe Into Maui Fire Response

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

Aloha e Civil Beat’s The Sunshine Editorial Board,I was disappointed to read yesterday’s blog criticizing my decision to delegate some of my responsibilities at DBEDT to Deputy Director Wicker while I focused on placing 5,400 shelter survivors in accommodations, hotels, and timeshare units for Maui’s recovery and relief efforts. Our Department has been tasked with the important job of collaborating with various partners, facilitating housing, and planning for both the short- and long-term economic recovery of the island.I am fully confident in Deputy Director Wicker’s ability to manage the day-to-day operations of the Department, given his 14-plus years of government experience and his deep understanding of the Department’s priorities, programs and policies.Mahalo,James Kunane TokiokaDirectorDepartment of Business, Economic Development & Tourism

JTokioka · 3 weeks ago

Thanks CB. There's nowhere else to get this kind of coverage. Unfortunately Keith-Agaran's callous disregard for the public interest is all too common in politics these days. You can tell they aren't used to having the light shined on them!

NoComment · 3 weeks ago

I’m no fan of "playing" politics and I obviously despise corruption and greed. I am grateful for your information and all the commenters. I learn so much from everyone. No other news source comes close and your integrity is what keeps me hooked. There are some of your old stories that I’m sure if followed up on, would bring more corruption for all eyes to see. Connecting the dots.

ifusayso · 3 weeks ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.