BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU – State Public Utilities Commission Chair Hermina Morita, considered the state’s “main diva for environmentalism” while she was in the House of Representatives from 1996 to 2011, may not be reappointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to the Public Utilities Commission for a second term after the state Department of Land and Natural Resources documented illegal activities by Morita and her husband, Lance Laney.
The governor appointed Morita the as Chair of the powerful 3-member PUC on Feb. 3, 2011, a move that environmentalists praised. The PUC is one of state’s most influential commissions because it regulates businesses that provide electricity, water, sewage, gas, transportation and phone communications.
During her career, Morita also served on the Kauai Planning Commission, regulating county land use ordinance, and on Kauai Police Commission, overseeing the local police force.
While she was at the PUC, there reportedly were complaints about her management style and her inability to move projects the governor supports forward, and those factors already put her re-appointment this June in jeopardy.
Now, Morita and Laney are under investigation by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources for building illegal structures on conservation land in Hanalei Valley and running an illegal bed and breakfast operation there called “Taro Patch Hale” with two separate cottages.
A local lawyer also alleged the couple may have illegally graded and grubbed on their property, leading to a flood in the area in 1995 and the ongoing breaching of the stream bank.
While some environmentalists and legislators have campaigned for Morita’s reappointment, maintaining the governor is using the land board investigation as a “political hit,” the state Department of Land and Natural Resources records show the investigation into Morita’s operation began in 2008 when an anonymous complaint was filed with the department, and expanded when when a second complaint with more detail was filled in 2013.
Honolulu attorney Les Iczkovitz, who represented area Hanalei residents, wrote a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila in Oct. 2013, asking for an investigation into whether Morita and Laney were involved in illegal activity on their 3.18 acre-property. He claimed the couple’s illegal grading may have caused environmental damage.
“If Ms. Morita and Mr. Laney actually built an illegal second residence, in the middle of a wetland on their property, without proper permits, so close to Hanalei River, one might suspect that this illegal building may have contributed to the 1995 flood event, and the ongoing breaching of the stream bank,” Iczkovitz wrote.
Morita is traveling and could not be reached for comment. Her husband has refused comment to all media outlets but told KITV News the bed and breakfast operation has been shut down.
On their now defunct web site, the couple described their property as offering serenity and beauty in the Hanalei mountains with rainbows, waterfalls and lush tropical foliage …. and wireless connectivity.
“The fabled Hanalei Valley is one of the most revered and treasured of all the valleys on Kauai; a place where the sacred Taro plant has been cultivated for eons. Today still, the Taro is grown and harvested in the valley and these two cottages are the only ones in the valley,” the web site said. “Feel the mana (grace) and beauty of this timeless place; travel back in time to a gentler, slower pace, truly relax. Five minutes to Hanalei bay and the other gorgeous beaches of Kauai’s North Shore.”
The two cottages rented for $130 and $140 a day, plus a $50 cleaning fee, which means the couple could have made as much as $87,000 a year without authorization by the county or the state.
Over the last 15 years, if rented six days a week, the properties could have brought them as much as $1.3 million.
A review of Hawaii State Ethics Commission records shows Morita did not disclose this vacation rental income to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission as she is required to do while she served in the legislature. Her financial disclosure records from her three years at the PUC are not public, under state law.
Les Kondo, executive director and the chief legal counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said he could not confirm whether the State Ethics Commission will investigate or take action against Morita because most personnel matters are confidential. Morita could face fines or other sanctions for non-disclosure from the State Ethics Commission.
According to documents obtained by Hawaii Reporter from the Department of Land and Natural Resources, that agency conducted its own investigation, the results of which are now public: “Information on the vacation rental ‘cottages’ was obtained via an internet web-search and included photographs of the alleged unauthorized cottages, current rates and taxes for vacation rentals, written descriptions of recent interior improvements i.e., new kitchens and testimonials from clients,” the report read.
The land department sent a notice of violation to Laney and Morita via certified mail on Jan. 3. 2014. However, records show on Jan. 21, Laney told the land department by phone that the vacation apartments were both occupied, and that future rentals had already been reserved through monetary deposits. Laney asked the land board for an extension.
Department of Land and Natural Resources director William Aila issued a Feb. 28 letter to Morita and her husband Lance Laney, ordering them to shut down the operation.
They were told by Aila to appear at a March 28 meeting before the Board of Land and Natural Resources where they could be fined $30,000, $15,000 for the illegal structures and $15,000 for the illegal bed & breakfast operation.
Under their zoning, Morita and Laney were allowed to build one home structure on the property they have owned for 30 years, because a previous home was reportedly destroyed during the Category 4 Hurricane Iniki on Sept. 11, 1992. However, there are now five structures in its place, according to state documentation.
During her 15 years in the legislature, Morita spent all but two years as the Chair of the House Energy & Environmental Protection Committee, and got passed a number of controversial measures that still impact Hawaii residents today including a law requiring a 6 cent fee on every bottle and can sold in the state and an oil import barrel tax that increased the cost of fuel.
The Hawaii Superferry was shut down in large part to Morita’s efforts after she worked with some environmentalists and competing businesses to organize a campaign and lawsuit against the ferry.
She also headed up the effort to get boat tour operators banned from Hanalei River.
Morita has earned high marks from environmental groups, even garnering a 100 percent approval rating from the Sierra Club, and is a board member of Environment Hawaii.
The governor’s office said through a spokesman that the governor has not made a formal decision as to whether to re-appoint Morita.
Since Morita’s term expires in June, the governor would need to make that decision this legislative session, which ends in early May, so the Senate could consider her confirmation.
Several lawmakers have signed a letter to the governor supporting Morita’s reappointment including Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige, a Democrat who is running against Abercrombie in the 2014 gubernatorial primary.