BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – University of Hawaii Board of Regents could face criminal or civil penalties if they disclose to media or the public information they learned in closed door meetings.
That is according to a new “Confidentiality Covenant” regents must sign if they serve on the Advisory Task Group on Operational and Financial Controls Improvement, a team of five regents and four accounting and auditing professionals recruited in recent weeks to examine the University’s management and fiscal control systems.
The Board of Regents established the task group in reaction to the Senate’s investigative hearings looking into management practices at the University. The Senate held two hearings – and could hold more – after school officials admitted they wired $200,000 to a fake promotion company in Miami, Florida, to run a Stevie Wonder concert at the University, and sold 6,000 tickets, before checking out the company to ensure it is legitimate. The whole fiasco because known as the “Wonder Blunder.”
University officials compounded the problem when they put Athletic director Jim Donovan and arena manager Rich Sheriff on paid leave, and then brought them back to work after Donovan threatened to sue. Donovan was then reassigned to a new branding and marketing position – a job that paid $211,000 per year for three years. The series of events cost the University over $1 million. Senators continue to look into other financial and management decisions at the University, including spending millions of dollars on outside legal and public relations consultants, on top of what they are already spending at the University.
The task group also will look into these issues with the help of an outside consultant – KMH – that could be paid as much as $50,000.
The Confidentiality Covenant obtained by Hawaii Reporter has strict conditions regents must adhere to.
Task force members must keep the task group work confidential and they must refuse to speak to the media. Board of Regents’ Chair Eric Martinson is designated as the one and only public and media contact for the Task Group.
The consequences for breaching the covenant can be severe: Members can be removed from the task force and face civil and criminal penalties.
The confidentiality covenant’s very existence was secret until it was mentioned by James H. Q. Lee, a regent who was called to testify before the Senate investigative committee chaired by Senate Vice President Donna Mercado Kim, D-Kalihi.
Lee, who is the vice chair of the Board of Regents and a partner in the Honolulu law firm of Devens, Nakano, Saito, Lee, Wong and Ching, defended the Confidentiality Covenant. He told Senators that inaccurate information was being leaked to the media. He singled out Keoki Kerr, an investigative reporter with Hawaii News Now, as one reporter who had obtained confidential information, but Lee also claimed the information was not accurate.
Kerr shared his thoughts on the new Confidentiality Covenant as well as accusation levied against him as he pursues the Wonder Blunder story, and other news reports at the University.
“My sources tell me that there was discussion during at least one closed-door meeting of an unpaid committee of volunteers that I might have used listening devices to obtain details from behind-closed-doors meetings of both the Board of Regents and the UH athletic director search advisory committee.
“I was surprised at least a couple people thought I would actually break the law and bug their meetings, which I clearly did not.
“I just used good old-fashioned reporting techniques to find out what happened, in spite of some people’s best efforts to keep things at our public university secret. And I will continue to do that.
“When I stopped laughing at the prospect of my setting up listening devices at UH facilities, I was complimented that my stories were so accurate, people thought I was actually eavesdropping on them.”
Kerr added that in his more than 20 years experience covering government, he found no matter how much management tries to intimidate people into not telling reporters the truth, some people will still leak information to a reporter, “especially if they don’t have faith in their bosses and if they trust the reporter to keep their identity confidential. ”
“Remember the eras of Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris and University of Hawaii President Evan Dobelle?” Kerr said.”Let’s just say those were busy times for journalists, who couldn’t keep up with the amount of leaking going on by front-line employees, mid-level managers and others who were fed up with bad management decisions.”
Kim also shared her concerns about the Confidentiality form and its potential impact: “I just got through watching the video from the last meeting where Mr. Lee is asked about this form. He stated that it was just an affirmation of faith, didn’t think it was enforceable and when I asked if it was a form of intimidation, he said ‘no.’
“But now when I look over the ‘Confidentiality Covenant’, I am alarmed by the fourth agreement: ‘Penalties for violation. To paraphrase it, any breach of the confidentiality obligations may result in civil and criminal penalties pursuant to and consistent with applicable law….’
“This is clearly another example of the UH Board of Regents cloaking themselves in secrecy and using this confidentiality covenant to intimidate others to do the same. I would like to know who drafted this document and how enforceable it is.”
Sen. Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, a member of the Senate’s Special Investigative Committee and a graduate of the University of Hawaii, said he is concerned about the confidentiality policy, how it appears to try to intimidate Regents and prevent transparency at the University.
Sens. Les Ihara, Jill Tokuda and Ron Kouchi – the other members of the 5-member committee – could not immediately be reached for comment.