BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU – House Majority floor leader Rida Cabanilla, D-Ewa, controls a non-profit that was awarded a $100,000 grant on April 25 from her peers in the Hawaii state legislature while the organization was out of compliance with the Internal Revenue Service.
The 501-c-3 charity, Ewa Historical Society Inc., lost its federal tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service when the organization neglected to file required paperwork for at least three years, according to Guidestar.org.
Cabanilla said she recently filed paperwork with the IRS to rectify that issue.
The organization originally applied in January for a $200,000 grant from the state legislature to hire three landscapers at $42,000 a piece and three grounds keepers at $23,000 a piece to take care of the “Old Ewa Cemetery.”
The majority floor leader maintains that she, her son Chris Manabat who works for her, and her two staff members, who constitute four of six people on the board, will not benefit personally from the state grant, and only want to help the people in the Ewa community restore an important historical and cultural site where many community members’ relatives are buried.
The application submitted to the legislature said $195,000 was planned for salaries and $5,000 for truck rentals and mowing equipment.
The application also said the Ewa Historical Society would restore cracked and aged gravestones and make other upgrades if awarded the $200,000, but Cabanilla said that won’t be possible without a great deal more money.
“The $100,000 is just for weed wacking. It is very expensive to restore cemetery. We’d need a lot of money,” Cabanilla said.
The Old Ewa Cemetery, just over 3 acres, is owned by the City & County of Honolulu since the 1970s, and was maintained by volunteers, including descendants of people buried there, until last year. The cemetery was founded in 1896, was open for burials until 1976, and is now registered with the State Historical Preservation Division as a historic site.
Tom Berg, a former Honolulu City Council Member, who at one time worked for Cabanilla in her state office and was on the board of the Ewa Historical Society, said he doesn’t believe the funding is appropriate.
When he was on the Honolulu City Council, Berg argued for the city to budget and assign responsibility for the cemetery maintenance. In spring of 2012, the city agreed to incorporate the maintenance of the cemetery into existing contracts beginning July 1, 2013, Berg said.
“For months now, and before Rep. Cabanilla even put in her Grants in Aid request in January of 2014 with the legislature, the city had been maintaining the cemetery,” Berg said. “So the question is, why would the legislature approve of $100,000 to buy new landscaping equipment and to pay six people to mow the grounds of a property owned by the city, and already maintained by the city?”
The Ewa Neighborhood Board confirms in its January 9, 2014, minutes, that the Ewa Villages Cemetery has been added to the master janitorial landscape contract by the City and will maintain the cemetery each month.
Cabanilla said while the city’s help would be a welcome addition, she passes the cemetery twice a day and has never seen the city working at the property.
Because the cemetery has no irrigation, there is very little grass to be mowed, Berg said. If the $200,000 grant had been awarded, that would equate to $17,000 in state money going toward maintenance in addition to what the city already does monthly, he said.
Cabanilla explained she listed 6 positions on the application form because she didn’t want anyone to work at the cemetery alone. She cited safety concerns, including sink holes near graves, and ghost sightings. She suggested three people should work on site at all times. She also said the grant doesn’t all have to be used for salaries, it could also be used as seed money to sustain the organization for many years to come.
Cabanilla first said in an email that Tony Bise, the president of the organization, applied for the grant, not her, but later clarified she prepared the grant and had him sign it.
Bise, who is a retired union leader and well-respected member of the community in Ewa, said by phone on Thursday that five years ago, he asked Cabanilla to get funding to take care of the cemetery, but he did not fill out or submit the application to the legislature and no longer handles the administration. He also was not aware the city was now maintaining the property.
Bise said he mainly takes care of his wife, who is ill at home, and has cut back all of his activities. He said the non-profit, which was set up to take care of historical properties in the area, has largely disbanded because there was no funding and no organization but he hopes the grant will get the organization back on track and reinvigorate volunteers.
Under state rules, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources will have to vet the Ewa Historical Society application a second time before issuing the check, said Kalbert Young, director of the state Office of Budget & Finance. The charity would need to be in compliance with all state and federal filing requirements.
It is a tradition that lawmakers acknowledge their potential conflicts with legislation before voting and ask the Speaker of the House or Senate President on the floor to address the conflict. The leadership, without exception, clears the lawmaker within seconds, but the declaration of the conflict is recorded in the legislative journal, and sometimes by the media.
In the case of Cabanilla, however, she did not declare a possible conflict when voting on the House budget on Tuesday, April 29, which contained the $100,000 grant award for a charity she controls.
She said she didn’t realize the grant was in the budget at the time she voted for it because the grant awarding process is highly secretive.
However, she didn’t feel she had to declare a conflict anyway, because she is not benefiting personally from the grant and not getting paid by the organization. She said she never tried to hide her involvement and was always transparent.
No one from the Ewa Historical Society showed up to the March 7 hearing where legislators reviewed and heard testimony from around 200 applicants vying for a piece of the $10 million in state grants.
The legislative session ends Thursday, May 1, but Berg thinks another charity is likely more deserving and the legislature should reconsider the allocation.
“Rida Cabanilla’s $100,000 grant provides services that are duplicative, exorbitantly expensive and unnecessary,” Berg said.
Cabanilla said the grant is important for the community and is a worthwhile project that deserves state support.
“This is a project the community wants,” Cabanilla said. “I just provided the leadership to get it.”