In the nearly five years he headed the University of Hawaii athletic department, Jim Donovan and his staff spent more than $600,000 in private discretionary donations on a wide range of goods and services, including taking staff members to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, paying for dinners to entertain donors and corporate sponsors, and hiring a limousine service to ferry Norm Chow around town when he was introduced as UH’s new football coach, according to expenditure records.
The documents, reviewed Tuesday by the Star-Advertiser as a result of a records request, showed that Donovan and others in his department were reimbursed from three UH Foundation accounts for items that school officials said were approved by UH and foundation officials and that Donovan defended as helping further the mission of the athletic department.
Donovan headed the department from 2008 until about two months ago when he was removed as athletic director and moved to a new UH marketing job in the aftermath of the botched Stevie Wonder concert, which was intended as a fundraiser for university athletics. UH said Donovan was cleared of any wrongdoing in the concert debacle.
Ken Berger, who heads Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based watchdog organization for nonprofits, criticized UH’s spending private funds to take staff members to the Final Four tournaments, saying such expenditures could erode donors’ confidence on how their donated money is spent and could be subject to abuse.
Thousands of dollars in foundation money were used to pay for Final Four expenses the past several years, including airfare for an assistant media relations director in 2011 and an information technology specialist, the Stan Sheriff Center manager and a webmaster in 2012.
"This is a real indication of an organization that seems to be more about giving perks to staff than truly being mission-driven," Berger said. "It raises more questions than it’s worth."
But Donovan said the Final Four reimbursements were approved by UH and foundation officials and that he took staffers whom he thought would benefit from seeing the biggest NCAA postseason event there is, given that UH sometimes hosts postseason play.
"I wanted them to see that this is the pinnacle of what the NCAA does in the postseason," he said.
Donovan also tapped the foundation accounts to underwrite multiple trips he took to the mainland to attend tournaments UH participated in, school-related meetings, golf fundraisers and other events. Other staffers sometimes went along, according to the documents.
In entertaining donors, supporters and others, Donovan would patronize high-end restaurants such as Alan Wong’s or Ruth’s Chris Steak House, as well as moderately priced ones such as Zippy’s, the documents show.
Donovan said the foundation funding contributed to the athletic department nearly tripling its pledged donations to about $11 million between 2008 and the time he left and helped yearly donations hold steady or increase slightly during a time of major economic downturn.
"If people want us to generate more revenue, we have to act more like a business" — cultivating supporters, attending events, buying tables at charity events and doing things that private businesses typically do, Donovan said.
"It is what it is," he added. "There’s no sleight of hand here. If (the foundation) didn’t approve the expenditures, I would pay for it. It’s as simple as that."
The thousands of pages of expenditure forms released by the university showed that few requests were denied, and sometimes items denied were similar to expenditures that were approved on other dates. One denial was for candy to replenish a candy bowl in the athletic department.
Some reimbursements, including meal expenses and airfare, were to pay for spouses of UH supporters or officials, such as when former UH athletic director Hugh Yoshida and his wife were flown to Los Angeles for an annual fundraising golf tournament, according to the documents.
Donovan said Yoshida co-founded the tournament 15 years ago and that Yoshida and his wife worked at the event and didn’t golf. The tournament usually raises about $10,000 each year, he added.
Donovan also used foundation money to take sports journalists, including Star-Advertiser staff members, to lunches, dinners or for drinks and pupu.
"Throughout these years when the athletic director picked up the tab, members of our sports staff followed the Star-Advertiser Code of Ethics and reciprocated by returning the favor at a later date," said Frank Bridgewater, the newspaper’s editor.
Regarding the $203 limousine tab for Chow, Donovan said the coach had such a tight schedule that he needed reliable, dedicated transportation to get him to various events before he had to head back to the mainland. Donovan said such an expense was atypical during the past four-plus years. The documents indicated that no employees were available to help with Chow’s transportation because of worker furloughs.
In a statement to the Star-Advertiser, UH President M.R.C. Greenwood said the spending of foundation money is among the issues being examined in a current audit of the UH-Manoa athletic department.
"While these reimbursements were made in accordance with established policies and after a full review, and the majority were clearly appropriate, legitimate questions can be raised as to the judgment exercised in some instances," Greenwood said. "We anticipate that the current leadership of the campus and the athletics department will ensure that good judgment is exercised in this area going forward."