Letter cites serious flaws in $28 million taxpayer-funded University of Hawaii dorm project

Construction contractor details controversy over project at University of Hawaii at Hilo
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Construction contractor details controversy over project at University of Hawaii at Hilo

By Malia Zimmerman – HONOLULU — A University of Hawaii-Hilo spokeswoman insists a $28 million dorm project will be ready by August, but a report obtained by Hawaii Reporter and Watchdog.org outlines numerous flaws in the taxpayer-funded project.

The problems are so serious they could increase the project’s cost and delay its fall opening.


In a letter sent to SSFM International Construction Manager Robert Yamada on Thursday, Gary Nakatsuka, an architect employed by Mitsunaga & Associates who is serving as project manager, said “unapproved, lesser grade windows” are examples of decisions made by SSFM that may prevent the building department from issuing a certificate of occupancy, thereby delaying the dorm’s fall opening.

The selection also places the university “at risk of having to remove and replace the windows should the windows be found to be non-compliant with the building code requirements of this project,” Nakatsuka said.

Nakatsuka cited a number of other construction elements as “troubling” and not to the “benefit” or “advancement” of the University of Hawaii, including potential mold and bathroom venting issues, substandard paint and drywall, unwarranted and unapproved cost escalations for flooring and the unauthorized removal of important elements of the project already included in the budget such as security fencing.

Three hundred UHH students plan to move into the new dormitory, called University Village.

The University’s Office of Capital Improvements and its former manager, Brian Minaai, were overseeing the project, but the university recently put Minaai on paid leave as the state attorney general investigates allegations that Minaai directed contracts to personal and political friends.

Dennis Mitsunaga, owner of Mitsunaga & Associates, made the stunning allegations in a February 14 letter to the Hawaii State Senate, which he sent in support of pending legislation that would transfer procurement responsibilities from the university to the Department of Accounting and General Services, the agency that manages most state construction projects.

Mitsunaga accused Minaai of using his position to marginalize his company’s bids in favor of competitors with ties to Minaai, ultimately bloating the costs of university projects.

Minaai did not respond to inquiries from Hawaii Reporter.

“Working with the UH Office of Capital Improvement and its director Brian Minaai has been a nightmare for members of our firm working on the UH student Housing Phase 1 (in Hilo),” Mitsunaga wrote in his Feb. 14 letter. “In the process of giving us a difficult time, Brian gave away millions of dollars on this project alone and should be investigated for blatant mismanagement.”

Student safety and a fiscal bottom line

The Thursday letter from Mitsunaga’s project manager lists specific problems that may impact student safety and the university’s bottom line.

For example, a planned security fence with controlled access gates included in the project budget was recently eliminated.

Nakatsuka said the contractor should install the fence and gate to ensure student safety.

In addition, the university does not allow paint to be sprayed on its campus buildings for environmental and safety reasons, but SSFM as the construction managers allowed the general contractor, Albert C. Kobayashi, and its painting subcontractor, used spray paint, Nakatsuka said.

UH President M.R.C. Greenwood

Project cost increases are also a sticking point.

SSFM said changing the pattern of the vinyl tiles on the dormitory floor from a checkerboard pattern approved by the university to a swirl pattern would cost an additional $126,000 on top of the $241,837 budgeted for the flooring.

Nakatsuka maintained the more than 50 percent cost increase is “outrageous” and should be more in the 5-10 percent range.

“This would equate to a flooring installer using a Davis-Bacon pay rate with fringe of $58.52 working for an additional 2,160 hours,” Nakatsuka said. “That’s one year and two weeks worth of hours to install the swirl pattern instead of the checkerboard pattern.”

The university had removed trees from the landscaping plan and all appliances, Nakatsuka noted in his letter.

The university remains silent on Minaai’s fate.

“As the Attorney General’s investigation is ongoing and the university has been requested not to comment on any aspect of it until completion, we are unable to respond to your specific questions about the Mitsunaga allegations,” Lynne T. Waters, associate vice president for external affairs and university relations for the University of Hawaii System, said in an email.

In another twist, UH President MRC Greenwood, who had ultimate authority over the university procurement and declined to appear before the legislature to answer questions about Minaai, the Hilo dorm and other university projects, announced her resignation last week, two years before her lucrative contract expires. She cited personal and health reasons for her early resignation.

Contact Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com





  1. Well you can't really be surprised. When we're talking about so much money there will always be people who are trying to do something to get part of it.

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