BY JIM DOOLEY – As the very existence of the East West Center is threatened by Republican budget cutters in Congress, the 51-year-old institution has given its president a raise and continues to pay more than $1.5 million a year for a Washington D.C. office.

The Center, headquartered on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus, awarded president Dr. Charles Morrison a new five-year compensation package last year that reportedly includes a $2 million “golden parachute” provision to be paid if his contract is terminated prematurely.

East West Center spokeswoman Karen Knudsen declined to discuss specifics of Morrison’s pay package, saying the figures would be made public when the institution’s 2011 tax return is filed next year.

The center’s board of governors last year found that Morrison’s $281,000 compensation package was “generally lower” than executive pay at similar institutions, said Knudsen.

The board adjusted Morrison’s salary accordingly when it granted him a five-year employment contract extension, she said.

The new pay raise kicks in next month.

Knudsen declined to elaborate or comment on reports that Morrison would be paid as much as $2 million if his contract is cut short.

According to the East West Center’s federal tax return for the 2009 fiscal year, Morrison’s base salary was $240,735 and his total compensation, including deferred salary and other benefits, was $281,158.

The same tax return disclosed that 29 EWC employees were paid more than $100,000, but only Morrison received more than $200,000.

In a Facebook posting earlier this year that responded to complaints and questions about Morrison’s pay, EWC director of administration Ricky Kubota said Morrison would “take a significant pay cut” if the EWC “suffered a serious loss in funding.”

Knudsen defended the center’s continued operation of its Washington office during an era of extreme budget restrictions throughout federal, state and local government.

“The East-West Center in Washington has been a highly productive and valuable arm of the EWC since its establishment almost a decade ago,” she said in a written statement.

“It supports Hawaii-based research, education, and exchange programs that involve Washington and provides contacts with embassies and policymakers in the nation’s capital,” Knudsen continued.

“The EWC is a national organization, and although most of its programs are carried out in Hawaii, the impact of our work has been augmented by an effective presence and program in Washington, DC.,” Knudsen said.

Expenses of the D.C. office on L Street total $1,564,000 – including $863,000 in salaries, $210,000 in rent/utilities and $563,000 in program expenses, said Knudsen.

Today the House Foreign Relations Committee voted to approve a bill that would eliminate funding for the East West Center, now running at about $20 million annually.

President Barack Obama earlier proposed that the funding level be reduced to $12 million, but U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who has championed the EWC since it was founded in 1960, arranged for full funding to be restored.

Inouye today called the House committee’s vote “regrettable.”

In a written statement, Inouye said, “It is premature to comment on legislation that has yet to be put to a vote by the entire House of Representatives or come before the Senate.”

The EWC underwrites research and educational programs aimed at promoting “better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific.”

The center boasts an alumni list of more than 57,000 names, many of them prominent business, political and educational leaders throughout Asia and the Pacific.

The 18 members of the EWC board of governors includes five members appointed by the U.S. Secretary of State, five by the governor of Hawaii and five from Asia Pacific nations. Three ex-officio members include representatives from the Governor’s office, the State Department and the president of the University of Hawaii.

In April, Gov. Neil Abercrombie re-appointed current board chairman Puongpun Sananikone to a new term.

Other board members appointed by Abercrombie include public relations executive Barbara Tanabe and attorneys

Corianne Lau, R. Brian Tsujimura, and Richard Turbin.

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Jim Dooley joined the Hawaii Reporter staff as an investigative reporter in October 2010. Before that, he has worked as a print and television reporter in Hawaii since 1973, beginning as a wire service reporter with United Press International. He joined Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, working as general assignment and City Hall reporter until 1978. In 1978, he moved to full-time investigative reporting in for The Advertiser; he joined KITV news in 1996 as investigative reporter. Jim returned to Advertiser 2001, working as investigative reporter and court reporter until 2010. Reach him at Jim@hawaiireporter.com