The Public First Law Center alleges that the Agribusiness Development Corp. and Defender Council violated Hawaii’s Sunshine Law.

A new lawsuit alleges that the Agribusiness Development Corp. hired its executive director in a series of unlawful closed-door meetings, interviews and deliberations.

The Public First Law Center, formerly known as The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, alleges that the ADC’s hiring process violated the Sunshine Law, which requires open meetings allowing public scrutiny and participation.

The Circuit Court suit, filed Wednesday, also argues that the Defender Council, which oversees the Office of the Public Defender, also violated the Sunshine Law in appointing Jon Ikenaga Nov. 2 as state public defender. It seeks to void the appointment because it violated the Sunshine Law.

The leaders of the ADC and Office of Public Defender are empowered with hefty authority: one overseeing millions of taxpayer dollars allocated for agricultural development, the other providing legal defense to those unable to afford it.

The Public First Law Center filed the suit in Circuit Court on Wednesday, alleging Sunshine Law violations by the Defender Council and Agribusiness Development Corp. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

“These are boards that are hiring high-level government employees and they seem to be interpreting the law in a way that’s not consistent with Supreme Court guidance,” Public First Law Center staff attorney Ben Creps said. “The end result is that the public is left out of the process.”

A Largely Unrecorded History

The suit comes several months after the ADC’s appointment of Wendy Gady as executive director. It alleges that the ADC committed several Sunshine Law violations in 2022 and 2023.

The suit asks the court to order the ADC to release the minutes and recordings of various closed-door meetings and the selection committee’s findings. It also seeks an order for the board of directors to receive annual Sunshine Law training and for the the court to declare ADC’s actions unlawful.

The suit does not call for Gady’s appointment be reversed because the statutory 90-day deadline to challenge the appointment has passed, Creps said.

Rows of Pineapple crowns that were recently hand planted located between Wahiawa and Haleiwa with Waianae Mountains in the background.
The Agribusiness Development Corporation owns thousands of acres of former sugarcane and pineapple plantation land, which it is mandated to develop. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

In early 2021, the Hawaii State Auditor found the ADC’s records in “disarray” and little evidence of success in achieving its mandate to strengthen Hawaii’s agricultural economy.

Lawmakers still allocated ADC more than $30 million in taxpayer funds last year, adding to a 30-year tab adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects and operations.

The state corporation last year faced another upheaval, with Gady’s longstanding predecessor James Nakatani dying in April.

Nakatani’s performance was one of many concerns, though the results of his performance review — even after the state audit — were only shared behind closed doors, which the suit alleges to be unlawful.

Nakatani’s death prompted then-ADC board chair Frederick Lau to set up a selection committee for Nakatani’s replacement. Within a few weeks, Lau stepped down to apply for the role, complicating the selection process.

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Over the course of the following months, until the Aug. 8 announcement of Gady’s appointment, a series of steps ran afoul of the Sunshine Law, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit includes five counts against the board, including its use of unauthorized committees to evaluate Nakatani’s performance, improperly running a hiring committee, selecting Gady “entirely in secret” and wrongly using privacy to justify its closed-door deliberations and decisions.

An anonymous Office of Information Practices complaint was made during the hiring process, taking issue with the board’s activities for similar reasons. The board dismissed the complaint twice and ratified its selection of Gady on Oct. 3 on a 7-2 vote.

After sending a request under the Uniform Information Practices Act, Civil Beat received two heavily redacted accounts of the meetings.

The ADC had not yet been served the suit and said it had not reviewed it.

Seeking To Undo Defender Council Appointment

The suit makes similar allegations against the Defender Council for its process of hiring Ikenaga as state public defender between June 16 and Nov. 2 last year.

They include unlawfully conducting closed-door meetings, interviewing in executive session and insufficiently recording the meetings.

Public First Law Center is asking that the Circuit Court compel the council to publicly disclose the meeting minutes and order the council to maintain audio recordings for four years.

The law center is also asking that Ikenaga’s appointment as State Public Defender be voided, because of the council’s array of alleged infractions.

The Office of State Public Defender and Defender Council did not respond to a request for comment.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

The Public First Law Center is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also a co-founder of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.

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