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Republican Gov. Linda Lingle sent down the names of several nominees for various state boards and commissions she wants confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate, agreeing to withdraw the names of some candidates the Democrat leaders said privately they would not, for various reasons, agree to confirm.
When it came to naming six nominees to the Board of Regents at the University of Hawaii, Lingle went through the same process, sending the names of the candidates to Senate President Robert Bunda, D-North Shore. According to the governor, Bunda told her there would be no trouble confirming any of them. The candidates included:
*Catherine “Kitty” Lagareta, head of one of Hawaii’s largest public relations firms, Communications Pacific, who also was one of the most active members in the Lingle for Governor Campaign in 1998 and 2002;
*Shelton Jim On, an attorney and CPA, who also is an active member of the Republican Party of Hawaii;
*Ed Sultan, the chief executive officer of his own jewelry enterprise with his namesake and a strong financial background;
*Byron Bender, professor emeritus with the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii;
*Trent K. Kikuta, JD candidate at the William Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii;
*Alvin Tanaka, who serves as president and manager of Pacific Transfer LLC.
However Bunda’s verbal promise was not made good when these candidates came before the Senate education committee, Tuesday, April 22, for their official interviews.
Though several dozen people came out to testify in favor of the candidates, and no one testified in opposition, at least two of the candidates, On and Sultan, were treated with contempt and hostility from the moment they sat down in front of the committee.
The Democrat committee members, some who in years past, laughed and joked with candidates nominated by former Democrat Governor Benjamin Cayetano, now looked at the Lingle nominees grimly, with their jaws set tight, and their eyes reflecting no warmth or compassion, just disdain. They seemed to be reading a play dialogue, set prior to the meeting, with one Senator after the other launching antagonistic questions at first On, then Sultan.
Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-Maui, was extremely aggressive toward Sulton, asking him if he’d read the auditor’s report that was critical of the University of Hawaii before coming before the Senate. Sultan answered honestly that he had not had a chance to look at it, but would do so in the immediate future. Tsutsui, however, was not satisfied, launching into a tirade over Sultan’s lack of preparedness for the interview. Other Democrats on the committee also fed off of Tsutsui’s aggression and Sultan’s apparent nervousness.
Even Senate President Robert Bunda made an extremely rare appearance to question the nominees.
Chair of the committee, Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-Moanalua, recommended the vote on whether or not the six candidates would be confirmed, be deferred to Thursday, April 24.
Between Tuesday and Thursday, Sakamoto came out in the local press saying he had “grave concerns” over two of the governor’s nominees. Sakamoto spoke of letters and emails coming into the Capitol that criticized and discredited the candidates, though when asked to produce these materials, ultimately he did not, saying it was Sen. Donna Kim, D-Kalihi, who had the correspondence. Kim is not on the committee. According to Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, Kim, at his request, produced only one piece of correspondence that was not signed — she’d removed the signature of the sender who did not want his or her name made public, Hemmings says.
“This (correspondence) may be of value to her (Kim), but as far as I am concerned, it is a totally useless, anonymous accusation not worth the paper it is on,” Hemmings says. “If someone has concerns over On’s appointment, On should be told what they are and be allowed to respond and defend himself.”
Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kauai, claimed his no vote at Thursday’s hearing on both On and Sultan’s appointment was not “personal” but rather done out of concern over the ability of these businessmen to oversee a $700 million company, meaning the University. He says he was unsure from their interview of their passion, interest in and commitment to the University.
Sen. Cal Kawamoto, D-Waipahu, said he planned to vote against the candidates because they would not support his plans for the West Oahu campus, and his “63-year-old body did not have enough life in it to wait another 25 years to have the campus built” (he said he worked on getting it built for 25 years to date). Oddly, Kawamoto did not ask some of the other regent candidates about the West Oahu campus, and in fact voted for one candidate who had spoke out adamantly against the proposed project, saying the state does not have the capital to pursue the construction of a whole new campus at this time.
Sen. Bob Hogue, the only Republican allowed to serve on the Senate education committee, stood his ground against the four of six Democrats present at the hearing who were determined not to confirm the governor’s nominees. He said their hostility toward On and Sultan “smacked of partisanship” and that their arguments against them were “disingenuous.”
Sens. Ron Menor, D-Mililani and Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-Nuuanu, voted with Hogue against the chairman’s recommendation, saying they did not have a strong enough reason to vote against the nominees and also wanted the chance to interview them further. Menor twice reserved the “right” to later vote against the nominees if he found additional information that was not presented at the hearing.
Supporters of the governor’s nominees say they believe On and Sultan were targeted, not because they were unprepared, disinterested, in-experienced, not humble or disrespectful toward the Democrats on the committee, as the Democrats purported. Rather because both candidates had a background in accounting and were adept with numbers and budgets, something the Democrats feared would lead to the uncovering of massive fiscal improprieties at the University of Hawaii once they were actively serving on the board and had the expenditures available to them.
Allan Ikawa of Big Island Candies and another regent who formerly owned Cheap Tickets, Michael Hartley, resigned their positions earlier this year because of concerns over the University’s lack of financial management.
Democrats also seemingly feared the governor’s nominees, four who had reportedly supported her in her campaign for governor, would move to fire University of Hawaii President Evan Dobelle, who endorsed Lingle’s opponent for governor in 2002, and who also continues to pick fights with the governor in the press. Tsutsui asked Sultan flat out if he had any plans to fire Dobelle. Sultan said no.
Behind the layers of the hostility, there was yet even another story. Kim, who also is vice president of the Senate, sent questions to the Democrat members to ask the candidates for her as she was not on the committee. She allegedly was upset with the governor, who did not confirm her candidate of choice for the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Kim chairs the tourism committee and oversees all tourism-related matters that come before the state Senate, including the management, finances and appointments to the Authority.
Kim was not available for comment today as she was in conference committees, however Hemmings, who hotly debated Kim over the candidates on the Senate floor Thursday night, says he believes the candidates are not being confirmed for all the reasons cited. Those include the unwillingness of the Democrats to have Republican-appointed accountants more closely examine the University’s finances, be able to fire Dobelle and in retaliation for the governor’s unwillingness to confirm the Democrat’s choice to the Authority.
Despite the controversy, the governor has refused to withdraw her two nominees under fire.
Hemmings, who says he is disappointed with the Democrats who are exhibiting a double standard with a Republican governor’s nominees, says he also does not appreciate some of the “adversarial questioning” select candidates have gone through.
Tonight, during the 6:30 p.m. session at the state Capitol, the decision over whether to confirm the governor’s nominees is expected to come to the full Senate for a vote. Hemmings says he hopes tonight, or whenever the confirmation vote does occur, that “cooler heads will prevail” and common sense will rule over partisanship and politics.