Director has Big Challenge: Make Hawaii a Business-friendly State

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Mark Recktenwald is passionate about helping his new boss, newly-elected Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, drastically improve Hawaii’s business climate, bringing Hawaii from its notoriously last place on numerous national business-friendly rankings to a much higher place on the scale.

On the job as director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) since January 2003, Recktenwald, a former top notch deputy U.S. attorney and attorney in private practice, already faced serious challenges in his new position and there are many more ahead.


Recktenwald, who took over one of the state’s largest agencies, arguably the most important for business because it regulates and oversees licensing of more than 100,000 businesspeople, says he is not only up to the challenges, he is thrilled and prepared to take them on.

Inspired by Lingle’s vision for the future of Hawaii, Recktenwald says he decided to apply for the director position because he wanted to be a part of helping to secure a brighter economic future for Hawaii.

Recktenwald isn’t shy about his enthusiasm for his new job as one of the governor’s 17 cabinet members, the first 17 in a Republican administration in over 40 years. He says he is thrilled to be in the position to help make a major difference and honored and humbled the governor, who did not know him before she interviewed him for the position, chose him to take on one of the most important jobs in the state.

Though he thoroughly enjoyed his experiences as a deputy U.S. attorney, even returning to the U.S. attorney office after a brief stint in private practice because he missed the criminal cases, he believes his sacrifice of a job he loved would be well worth it.

That was partly because in his new job he would be pro-active rather than re-active, though he could help people as the U.S. deputy prosecutor and as DCCA director. Rather than going after the bad guys he often encountered as a criminal federal prosecutor, he’d be able to make Hawaii a better place to work, run a business and live.

“I saw an opportunity to proactively change policy. And I thought the governor and I had the same vision and that much could be done to secure all of our futures,” Recktenwald says.

Part of his strong desire to turn around the business climate and the economy came because family members had to move away from Hawaii, either because they could no longer afford to live in the state or they could not find good jobs. He wants to make Hawaii a more viable place to live and own a business so the people who want to stay and find good jobs in Hawaii can do so.

His responsibilities are vast. DCCA oversees business registration, the licensing of more than 100,000 business professionals in 46 professions, medical malpractice cases before trial, dozens of state boards and commissions, and securities regulation, investigation and enforcement of those regulations.

Already keeping his promise to the public and to the governor, Recktenwald reduced business registration fees and some regulatory burdens after just a few months on the job. Some reductions he made within weeks of taking over the position:

He is heading up the effort, along with other directors in Lingle’s cabinet, to create a one-stop-shop for business registration, licensing and eventually permitting. He already oversees business registration, where people first go to register their business name and trademarks, hand in their annual reports and apply for a professional license. Under his plan, rather than having business people get clearance from multiple agencies before opening, they can go to one stop, the DCCA, for everything or apply through one portal online.

He also is working to lessen the length of the cases awaiting review by the medical claims conciliation panel from 18 months to 12 months or less. He is identifying requirements the state places on its business owners who are far out of step with other jurisdictions, and if there is not a good reason for those requirements, he plans to try and change them, though in some cases he’ll need legislative approval. And he is closely examining licensing laws, why certain industries are licensed and if they need to continue to be licensed, as well as barriers to competition to Hawaii.

One of the major hurdles Recktenwald will have is creating a more fair and competitive health insurance in Hawaii. Right now, HMSA and Kaiser dominate the health-care insurers’ market, partly because they are non-profits so they’re exempt from paying taxes, whereas for profit users who want to enter the market do have to pay the tax and therefore are already at a disadvantage. Those in the business community who are forced to buy insurance for their employees working more than 19 hours a week say the lack of competition has created a medical insurers monopoly, driven away potential competition, raised prices and driven down the quality of service.

The skills he acquired as a U.S. deputy attorney and criminal and civil investigator, specifically in the areas of white collar crime, health-care fraud, environmental crimes, identity theft, loan fraud and credit card fraud, will help him in his new position. As will his experience as a commercial litigator and employment litigator, which he gained when working for the law firm of Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel from 1988 to 1991 and before that with another law firm in Honolulu where he was a partner, and gained valuable business experience.

Beside the governor who raves about Recktenwald, he has a wide range of supporters from state legislators, to his former co-workers, to his former supervisors, to people who just met him but whom he left with them a lasting impression.

State Sen. Sam Slom, a Republican representing the Hawaii Kai district, who also serves as president of the small business advocacy organization, Small Business Hawaii, says he was immediately impressed by Recktenwald when he met with him for the first time at the Hawaii State Capitol.

Recktenwald, who immediately began visiting with experts who could tell him exactly why Hawaii is ranked as the most business-unfriendly state in the nation, had his first meeting with Slom.

“Mr. Recktenwald came prepared to talk about issues that concern people in business in Hawaii, especially small business, and I knew he had done his homework first. He was so refreshing because he wanted to know how the government could best help business and begin to reverse the negative and hostile business image. He took a lot of notes when we talked and asked for specific names and examples that hurt business. He had some suggested solutions of his own,” Slom says.

He also was willing to retain personnel from the previous administration who had been given high marks by members of the business community, showing he was really looking for the best people, regardless of the political affiliations, Slom says.

Subsequent to their first meeting, Recktenwald followed up on meetings with other small business leaders in the community and proved to be a good listener, Slom added.

Then most importantly, Slom says Recktenwald began immediately to implement changes such as reducing the time spent on business registration, actually lowering and eliminating some fees and costs that he determined to be excessive and anti-business and he made himself available to the bi-partisan legislative small business caucus.

He also was an effective testifier on pro-economic reform bills before various house and senate committees and took it upon himself to be pro-active in many areas of business reform, Slom says.

He added: “What more could anyone hope for in a governmental agency leader? Now that the session is over, we in the business community look forward to him providing more creative and innovative ways of improving our business climate and leveling out the playing field for all business in a timely manner.”

Recktenwald knows a bit about the state Legislature in Hawaii because after moving to Hawaii in 1981, he worked there briefly for then State Sen. Ann Kobayashi, and he also wrote for the United Press International. After leaving Hawaii to attend law school in the mainland, he returned to serve as a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Harold Fong.

Richard Rowland, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a free market public policy institute, says he was impressed with Recktenwald before he’d even met him. Rowland, a board member of Small Business Hawaii, says he testified on behalf of Recktenwald at his confirmation hearings before the Hawaii State Senate, and Recktenwald, whom he never met, wrote a letter to him to thank him. Rowland also has had the opportunity to hear Recktenwald speak to business groups and has talked with him about the changes he wants to implement, all which impressed Rowland even further.

U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo, who has worked with Recktenwald on cases for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Hawaii, says Recktenwald’s decision to leave is “Our loss and Linda Lingle’s gain.”

Kubo and Recktenwald worked a case many years ago, one of Kubo’s first when he joined the U.S. attorney’s office as a deputy, and they successfully prosecuted foreign smugglers who tried to bring hundreds of alien victims into the state. He says he knows Recktenwald’s talent firsthand.

“I got to see Mark in action in court on that case. He is an excellent attorney, a smart litigator, intelligent, down to earth, he uses common sense and he is a good advocate for victims’ rights,” Kubo says.

Kubo cited another major case Recktenwald took on — he was co-counsel for one of the most notable cases in Hawaii — that of the prosecutor of Banker Sukamto Sia, who Recktenwald helped nail for bank fraud and bankruptcy fraud.

“He would get on top of a case and work hard all the way through it. He worked long hours and was well informed and prepared, which probably had a great deal to do with Sukamto Sia pleading guilty so he did not have to go to trial,” Kubo says.

Recktenwald is so difficult to replace that Kubo, who says he was proud to have Recktenwald on his staff, left the door open for him to return to his prosecutor job any time he wants another shot at being a federal prosecutor.

“He is a successful seasoned and polished federal prosecutor. It is in his blood. And we told him we’ve left the doors wide open for his return. That is how much we respect him.”