A state lawmaker says he has been unable get the Department of Land and Natural Resources to explain how $8 million in state funding was spent in support of the World Conservation Congress in Waikiki in September.
House Water and Land Committee Chairman Ryan Yamane said he was told a number of payments were made to local environmental groups that helped with the event, sponsored by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, but he has been unable to obtain any contracts or agreements specifying how the money was supposed to be used, or any reports detailing where the money went.
The convention drew 10,000 participants from 192 counties, and Yamane agrees the event was a great success. The IUCN has described the Honolulu event as the most successful meeting in the organization’s history.
Even so, lawmakers authorized $8 million in state funds to be provided to a private organization called the World Conservation Congress National Host Committee to run the event, and Yamane said he is unaware of any other instance where the state provided millions of dollars to an outside organization without officially and publicly accounting for the money.
“We’ve heard a number of concerns regarding how there should be follow-up on how the money was spent,” said Yamane (D, Mililani- Waipio-Waikele). “Our position has always been, we’ve been asking for that information, the specifics of how the money was spent, how the contracts were determined, how these agreements were made.”
Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, replied that Yamane never asked the department for a complete accounting of the state funding spent on the IUCN convention.
She said the department is preparing to close the books on the event this spring after the final invoices have been received and processed. The Host Committee and the department did such a careful job of budgeting for the convention that more than $1.5 million will be left over from the original $8 million, she said.
That money will be returned to the state general fund, Case said.
As for Yamane, “he has suggested that he has questions, but we have never had any request for information or known exactly what his questions are,” Case said. “So, we’re very happy to provide any answers. We just don’t know what the questions are.”
Among the people pressing Yamane to probe state spending on IUCN is environmentalist Carroll Cox, president of EnviroWatch, a nonprofit group. Cox described the convention as “a really high-powered party at the expense of the taxpayers of Hawaii. That’s what I took away from it.”
He added, “That’s an expense that we could have avoided. We’ve got bigger and better things to address right here in our own state about environmental concerns. We’ve got issues of clean water, we’ve got issues of solid waste.”
Cox said he wonders who decided which groups would participate in the convention, and how that was decided. He has been a longtime agitator for more state spending on conservation programs, and wants to know why the convention was more important than the conservation issues he raised.
“We need an audit of DLNR, and we need an audit of this IUCN to make sure that if they spent the money, they be accountable and it was not spent on nonsense,” he said.
Yamane helped to arrange for much of the state funding for the convention, and said he began asking about spending and other issues involving the IUCN even before the convention ended last year. He said he also posed inquires to the department after the convention about how the $8 million passed through DLNR to the IUCN Host Committee, and how it was distributed.
The department responded that those details were handled by the independent Host Committee, Yamane said, which included Case as well as representatives of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, University of Hawaii, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a number of private organizations.
Yamane said he instructed the department to get the information from the Host Committee, but “we never got a response.”
When he didn’t feel he was getting adequate answers, Yamane circulated a letter among key lawmakers in October asking the state auditor to conduct an audit to account for the $8 million.
House Speaker Joe Souki, former Senate Water Land and Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Gabbard and Yamane all signed the letter calling for the audit, but that effort stalled because Senate President Ron Kouchi refused to sign off on the audit request.
Kouchi said he declined to sign the audit letter because he felt lawmakers should have first questioned DLNR in an informational briefing about spending or any other outstanding issues related to the convention. Kouchi said he heard no reports of any misuse of funds.
“DLNR should have the ability to at least come and talk to us first,” he said. “If the talk didn’t prove productive, sure, but to just jump to that audit without talking to them, it seemed like we missed a step.”
Case said her office has heard nothing about an audit, but “we have no problem providing answers,” adding, “People get audited all the time. We are happy to have review of our expenditures, but (Yamane) has not proposed an audit to us.”
The state pledged to provide money for the convention when it put in a bid for the event in 2013, and that bid was accepted in 2014. The plan was to finance the event with state and federal funds and donations, and the East-West Center served as fiscal agent for the Host Committee, Case said. The Host Committee was also responsible for raising private funds for the event.
Lawmakers authorized $8 million in direct state funding, and DLNR provided more than $7.6 million of that money to the East-West Center to support the event. DLNR held back about $364,000 from the state’s share to cover the department’s expenses in putting on the event, Case said.
The Hawai‘i Convention Center also contributed $1.5 million in in-kind donations, while the Attorney General’s Office provided another $200,000 in cash to help support the effort, she said.
About nine foundations and private sources also contributed funding, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs spent another $400,000 on the effort, Case said, for a total of $10.64 million that was raised from all sources, she said.
Case said of the Host Committee, “We had a very tight budget management process because we were worried about not having enough money.”
Randall Tanaka, executive director of the Host Committee, said the panel has almost completed its accounting but is still gathering more information on four invoices that need to be resolved. There have been delays because information needs to be coordinated among several players including the IUCN, a housing contractor and hotels, he said.
It has also taken time to sort out who pays for various specific expenses, but that effort is almost complete, he said.
The committee used competitive processes to award contracts, and board members never made any attempt to steer a contract to a particular organization or company, he said. He said the final report to DLNR will spell out who received contracts and how much they were paid.
Minutes from the July 15, 2015, meeting of the board of directors for the Host Committee noted that the organization planned to award 20 contracts for services and activities related to the convention by that fall for everything from interpreter services to a convention website.
Those contracts included one for registration and housing services to J. Spargo & Associates, and also with the Stryker Weiner & Yokota firm to handle public relations and help with the closing report for the convention.
Tanaka said grants funded with private money were also awarded to organizations to help with youth engagement, and also to the Hawaii Conservation Alliance to help encourage people from the neighbor islands to participate in the conference.