Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Rowena Akana testified before the state Ethics Commission on Thursday, saying she was being unfairly singled out as part of an election-year campaign by her rivals to remove her from office.
What’s more, Akana said it was her own efforts to uncover unethical and incompetent behavior within OHA that made her a target.
“I’m here today because of whistle-blowing and retaliation, as far as I’m concerned,” she told the five-member commission in the Honolulu contested case hearing.
Akana, the longest-serving trustee on the OHA board, faces 50 counts alleging violations of the Hawaii State Ethics Code, including infractions of the state’s Gifts Law, Gifts Reporting Law and Fair Treatment Law.
Charges are linked to cash she accepted to help pay for legal fees and for using her trustee allowance to buy things such as home cable television services, a Hawaiian Airlines Premier Club membership and restaurant food.
In three hours of testimony Thursday, Akana offered explanations for most of the charges, noting that many of them had been permitted by the OHA fiscal office, while others had been repaid after they were disallowed.
Regarding the legal fees, Akana is accused of improperly receiving more than $72,000 from Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa to help pay for her court battle against OHA from 2015 to 2017. It was at a time when Kawananakoa was suing the trustees, including Akana, on a different issue.
Akana told the commission that her suit was an attempt to uncover ethically questionable, closed-door wheeling and dealing by the board majority in the purchase of the Nimitz Highway building where OHA is now housed.
Kawananakoa, she said, was simply interested in getting the truth out.
“She believed in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs,” Akana said. “She believed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, in a Hawaiian word, should be pono. It should be a place where all trustees follow the law and do what they are supposed to do. That’s why she funded me.”
She said she didn’t think there was anything wrong with accepting the help, especially when OHA didn’t underwrite her defense when the board majority countersued her in her official capacity as trustee.
Akana became emotional when she was asked about the retaliation following the suit. She said she was “trying to help OHA stay on the straight and narrow, and some trustees didn’t want to go there.”
Many of the other counts in the commission’s charging document describe improprieties in the use of Akana’s annual allowance.
Regarding her cable bill, she is accused of paying $80 a month, over 16 billing cycles, when basic service is less than $50 a month.
The trustee testified that the OHA fiscal office previously permitted cable service as an allowed expense, and when they told her to reduce her bill, she did. Akana said she watched only the news channels, ‘Olelo community TV and public television, and considered them helpful in keeping her informed on the issues.
Akana blamed a former employee for using her credit card number to buy an Apple iTunes gift card without her knowledge, as well as for buying food at a restaurant while she was on a trip to New York.
Nearly a dozen other alleged food and restaurant purchase violations were not disallowed by the OHA accounting office, she noted, and most of those were for business meetings, work sessions and farewell dinners allowed by OHA policy.
About a Hawaiian Airlines Premier Club membership, Akana said she was trying to save OHA money by getting her baggage checked in free.
“It saved the trust money (in the long run). It just made more sense.” she said.
As for the handful of violations regarding donations to political groups and to the Hawaiian Humane Society, Akana said, “I believe every donation that I made, whether it was to a nonprofit organization or whatever, was always in the best interest of our Hawaiian people — always.”
One count alleging Akana used her allowance to pay for a home security system was dropped.
Akana denied she abused and mistreated OHA employees in recent years and certainly not to the degree former OHA corporation counsel Ernest Kimoto testified to Wednesday. He said more than 20 employees had filed complaints against the trustee.
Akana said she doesn’t come in contact with that many staff members and that, in any case, her request to review the complaints was denied. She said she was told later that only a few employees had submitted grievances against her.
After the meeting Akana told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the campaign to “dirty me up” began after certain OHA trustees and staffers turned against her during her legal battle with OHA and continued after she and a few allies began looking at replacing OHA CEO Kamana‘opono Crabbe.
“They’re making something out of nothing.” she said.