The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is offering “less than full cooperation” with an audit that was ordered up by state lawmakers of the $9 billion Honolulu rail project, according to Hawaii State Auditor Les Kondo.
In testimony this morning before the HART board of directors, Kondo said HART staff have offered “less than timely and less than full cooperation” to auditors who have requested documents and other information from rail staff. Kondo said he wrote a letter to HART “expressing some of the further frustrations” he has experienced.
“I don’t have the authority to compel HART to comply with our requests for information, but when we issue our report, and when we note the challenges that we’ve experienced, I don’t want the board to come back to me and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us? If you had only told us,’ ” Kondo said.
State lawmakers ordered Kondo to conduct the audit of rail in 2017 as part of Act 1, which included a $2.4 billion bailout of rail to cover project cost overruns.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins said he takes strong exception to any suggestion that he and his HART staff “are dragging our feet,” and said his office received a letter from the State Auditor in early August saying “they had received most if not all of the documents they had requested.”
“We understand that the State Auditor and his office and his consultants have a job to do, and we support that and we’re working very hard to cooperate,” Robbins said. “People have day jobs. This is a very complex project, over $8 billion. To imply with the voluminous requests of documents, not only from the state auditor but from the city auditor, the FTA and others, we’re doing the best we can, it’s just really difficult on our staff to snap to it, if you will, and meet every deadline.”
The city pledged in 2012 to complete rail’s elevated guideway and 21 stations for $5.26 billion, but estimates of the construction and financing costs for the project have ballooned to more than $9 billion. The project was supposed to be completed in 2019 but federal officials now doubt it will be finished even by the city’s new completion date of late 2025.
As an example of the difficulties faced by auditors as they examine the rail project, Kondo said his staff requested HART board executive session minutes from 2014, 2015 and 2016 State law allows the auditor to keep those records confidential.
Although HART requested the executive session minutes on July 3, the only records HART has released to date are minutes from June 2016 to September 2017, he said.
“We did not ask for 2017 minutes,” Kondo told the board. “We have not received any information, let alone the records themselves, for 2014 and 2015.”
Kondo also displayed for the board pages of the 2016 HART board executive session meeting minutes that were released to the auditor’s staff, but those pages were almost entirely redacted or blacked out before they were released. Only a few words were visible on the documents.
The auditor regularly obtains confidential information from state agencies, including communications between agencies and their lawyers, he said.
Kondo told the HART board in May that staff with the rail authority have been tape recording the auditors’ interviews of HART staff, and Kondo said today that practice continues.
“I told the board that in my opinion that was intimidating, and whether intended or not, it was sending a message to those employees, and they’ve told us that they’ve been intimidated, and they’ve been reluctant to talk,” Kondo told the rail directors. “It’s a message that they need to toe the party line because someone may be listening.”
Robbins said the auditor also records the interviews, “and so we conferrred with (legal) counsel and we were advised it would be prudent to also record to protect our employees. I’ve had more than one employee come to us and say they were upset that the auditor was recording. I’ve not had one complaint that we’re recording from any of my employees.”
Kondo urged the board to consider its obligation to transparency and accountability, which he described as “important to building that bridge of trust, and I feel like our audit is part of that process. Part of that process is rebuilding that foundation of public trust and trust with the Legislature.”
HART spokesman Bill Brennan declined comment on Kondo’s remarks, but said HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins would speak to the board about the issues Kondo raised later today.