Coconut Island (photo courtesy of UH)
Coconut Island (photo courtesy of UH)

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – State Senators were stunned on Thursday when University of Hawaii officials admitted during a Ways and Means hearing that some $200,000 went missing over a 7-year period, but was recovered from an “inactive account” when the University installed new software and discovered the funds.

The $200,000 was supposed to help pay for research on Coconut Island, an actual island off the windward coast of Oahu owned by the University of Hawaii Foundation and leased to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology’s School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology.

But a University employee allegedly deposited the money in an account that was no longer active, and the funds languished there unnoticed for 7 years until a new financial procedure was initiated.

Senate Ways and Means Vice Chair Michelle Kidani questioned the department dean and UH Manoa Chancellor as to why and how the money went missing for so long.

“Do you have that kind of money that you don’t miss it for 7 years?” Kidani asked.

When the administrators denied having too much money to track and admitted the problem occurred because the account was not reconciled in a “timely manner”, Kidani asked incredulously, “For seven years? … This causes a red flag for me.”

“It causes a red flag for me, because it happened in my shop and I did not know it was occurring as a dean,” said School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology Dean Brian Taylor.

The unionized employee who made the error is a member of the Hawaii Government Employee Association, so he could not easily be fired because of union rules. The employee was put on paid leave for 6 months while the university investigated the matter, and then put the employee into a “remedial training program.”

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, former member of the Ways and Means Committee who has extensively investigated the public University’s finances, commented on the fact that it took 6 months to investigate the employee and the missing money after an already 7-year delay.