Alleged Hawaii Travel Industry Corruption Exposed By NYT

Alleged Hawaii Travel Industry Corruption Exposed By NYT

When the New York Times did an expose this week on corruption in Hawaii politics, we took notice on how much that has impacted Hawaii travel, specifically. Let’s just say the pineapple has been ripped to its core with juicy details. This NYT article referenced many players we already know from the Hawaii tourism industry. Then we looked further at the travel tie details. And sadly, it explains a lot, as you are about to see.

Many of you have left comments in the past asking why things seem in such disrepair including restrooms at Hawaii beaches, roads and highways, airports and their runways and other facilities. You’ve asked where the money goes from the taxes you pay as visitors and as residents, and now we have some answers.

A prominent Hawaii businessman, Milton Choy, was working with the federal government to help uncover the scandal. He wore a “wire “for a year to show that state officials took bribes from him. Here’s how the story unfolded in something that seems right out of Hawaii Five-0.

Hawaii’s elite have long partaken in clandestine, late-night political fundraisers.

They were often in an unspoken and unseen modest Honolulu location at 800 S. Beretania Street, pictured here. Later, the parties moved. With dining and unlimited alcohol, these get-togethers have long served as networking parties where Hawaii politics and business intersect, greatly impacting our beloved Hawaii travel sector.

At the parties, vast sums of money were placed in metal boxes.

Then, at the end of the party, politicians plus the host, who was a prior high-level employee of Hawaii Department of Transportation/Airports, would hand out the money to political campaigns based on pledges preceding the event. These parties are said to have become legendary, where lobbyists and executives met with politicians and obtained favors in Hawaii government contracting, very often related to tourism and infrastructure projects that are vital to Hawaii’s travel industry.

Is this in part why Hawaii tourism is in disrepair?

And, even after living many decades in Hawaii, this was hard for us to read. These parties were reportedly hosted by Wes Yonamine, then branch head at the Hawaii Department of Transportation/Airports.

Despite alleged efforts to curb such inappropriate, if not illegal dealings, the money has continued to flow, underscoring Hawaii’s political culture, which remains deeply entangled with private corporate interests.

The investigative report said that such gatherings are flourishing and result in a significant portion of the campaign funding throughout Hawaii. According to the report, these Yonamine parties have consistently attracted significant donations that boost the annual campaign revenues of some politicians. These affairs link corporate interests and Hawaii politicians in ways that likely impact the success or failure of Hawaii travel.

The impact on Hawaii airports for one, is significant.

These events may have significantly impacted Hawaii’s airports, a critical node in the state’s all-important travel infrastructure. The funding parties have preceded contract awards for airport expansions, repairs, renovations, and areas vital to maintaining and enhancing the Hawaii visitor experience, including operations and capacity. Timing of these generous campaign donations in relation to tourism contracts raises big questions about the integrity of Hawaii’s travel infrastructure contracting process.

Despite these glaring concerns, efforts over decades to reform the system have been met with resistance, as becomes obvious when seen in light of whose money is at stake. The Hawaii Legislature’s feeble attempts to close campaign loopholes that allow such donations have repeatedly failed, which now comes as no surprise.

The implications for the Hawaii travel industry are profound.

Common Cause Hawaii’s director said of the situation, “Pay-to-play” is woven into the DNA of the statehood of Hawaii and said that it has been this way since the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

According to the article, analysis of the situation shows that over the past 18 years, people associated with government contractors have been responsible for giving tens of millions to Hawaii politicians. It is also noted that virtually all of the donations came via donors who didn’t mention the companies with which they are associated, thus helping obfuscate the relationships.

Some of the contractors mentioned include SSFM, whose president previously pleaded no contest to money laundering but subsequently contributed $130k to various politicians. We found that company lists among its projects, Honolulu airport taxiway engineering.

Others notable in Hawaii include Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who oversaw the initial response to the Maui wildfires, who NYT reported received more than $107,000.

In 2021, contractor Goodfellow Bros., who we previously reported was involved in Maui Airport runway repairs, also won a $4.6 million Maui landfill deal. Following that project’s approval, NYT said that Goodfellow executives and family members gave campaign contributions of $34,000 to Maui’s mayor and council members, which made them among Maui’s most prominent political donors.

While it is legal for Hawaii legislators to maintain other jobs despite being paid over $70K annually by the state, it can result in obvious concerns. NYT pointed out that State Senate President Ron Kouchi, from Kauai, earns an additional $50-100K annually through employment with his brother’s company, which they pointed out is the sole trash services provider to agencies here on Kauai.

Another major Honolulu Airport contractor, NAN Inc., was mentioned. “Representative Micah Aiu is a lawyer at Nan Inc., one of the state’s biggest contractors, which won at least $39 million in projects last year. They have said they are not directly involved in their companies’ contracts.” We found that NAN Inc. won a nearly $150M Honolulu Airport contract for baggage handling systems that was performed last year.

Hawaii airports remain a focus of issues.

Many corporate guests of these political campaign parties performed work at Hawaii airports, which resulted in deals worth more than $130M. NYT noted, “At least 59 companies competed for airport contracts between 2014 and 2020. But nearly half the airports’ 153 professional services contracts went to just 14 companies.”

Hawaii’s airports are gateways pivotal to the success of our tourism-dependent economy, yet continue to be far less than world-class, while also being lucrative hotspots for political and corporate maneuvering.

This sad state of affairs in Hawaii travel also sheds light on broader implications of political funding in Hawaii, calling for a reassessment of these practices regarding transparency, and the health of Hawaii travel and more.

We welcome your input!

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103 thoughts on “Alleged Hawaii Travel Industry Corruption Exposed By NYT”

  1. Imagine That! Corruption. I don’t remember hearing of anyone representing the Hotel and Resorts, that must be other parties and private dining in the finest establishments. A dimly lit corner table where a hand off of cash can be accomplished clandestinly. Of course the dinner is part of the bribe too. Wise up, more than likely you voted for at least some of them. Maybe the owners of STR’S should have attended the bribe parties, they wouldn’t be having the problems they now face. I’ve heard that the Southern Hemisphere is enjoying the influx of Vacationers and their money 💰.

  2. There are no words to describe how appreciative we are to see someone put the government corruption regarding the tourism department into print. When Gov Green was approached with the exposed tourism scam, requesting that they shut down the tourism department, he instead gave everyone a raise. Hopefully we get an honest government representative some day that doesn’t want to line his and his friends pockets.


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