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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 2, 2001

Maui Council won't hire Bronster for Lingle investigation

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — Former state Attorney General Margery Bronster will not be hired to investigate former Maui Mayor Linda Lingle in connection with the controversial Makawao Highlands housing project, the Maui County Council decided yesterday.

A proposal to spend up to $30,000 to hire Bronster was rejected by council members after hours of testimony, much of it from Lingle loyalists, Republican Party members and former Lingle administration officials.

"I think it's clear from the public testimony that they could no longer support a continuation of this,'' Lingle said after the vote. "They heard from enough people that we really were following all the laws as we understood them.''

It is unclear whether the issue is dead. The council last year authorized hiring a special attorney to investigate the $5.5 million Makawao Highlands project, but County Corporation Counsel James Takeyesu indicated yesterday he would have to look into whether that action is still valid following the 6-3 rejection vote.

Based on the comments of most of the nine-member council, it appears Lingle, the head of the Republican Party in Hawai'i and a likely candidate for governor in 2002, might be in the clear.

The council's four Republicans — Alan Arakawa, Charmaine Tavares, Jo Anne Johnson and Wayne Nishiki — voted against hiring Bronster and were joined by Democrats Robert Carroll and Michael Molina. While Molina said he wanted to send the issue to committee for more discussion, Carroll gave a strong statement opposing any further examination of the project.

"We have all the information we need. I can't see this going any further,'' Carroll said.

But Democrats Dain Kane, Riki Hokama and Patrick Kawano pointed to a report by Russell Yamane & Associates that indicated county money had been spent without proper approval and that the housing project resulted in a loss to taxpayers of $1.4 million.

"This is not a witch hunt, as some people have called it. This is answering the questions that have to be asked,'' Kane said.

Yesterday's vote was a rejection of a May 15 recommendation by the Committee of the Whole to hire Bronster at $200 an hour. Lingle said after the hearing that in the past week or so, she had called most of the council members individually to explain her side of the dispute.

The controversy dates to 1992, when developer Joel Cavasso acquired a 3.9-acre parcel in Makawao for a proposed housing development. Cavasso said he proceeded with the project on the basis of a zoning error committed by the county's land use and codes division.

When he was ordered by the county to stop construction after sinking about $1 million into the development, he wrote to Lingle in 1995 to say he was facing foreclosure because of the zoning error and that he was considering litigation against the county.

The administration agreed to buy the Makawao land for $1.95 million and turn it into an affordable housing project.

The council approved the project in 1996 but was not told of Cavasso's letter or the circumstances surrounding the county's decision to develop the land.

The deal has been characterized as a bailout for the developer, but Lingle maintains that the arrangement saved the county from potentially costly litigation and resulted in affordable housing for 22 families.

Among those who spoke yesterday were Cavasso and others involved in the Makawao Highlands development. They praised the former mayor for turning a bad situation into a good one.

"We were ready to sue if we had to,'' said developer Abe Lee, Cavasso's partner in the deal. "Lingle did the best job she could.''

Others testified that spending up to $30,000 for such an investigation is a waste of public money, and that it's likely Bronster would run up much higher bills in her investigation.

Bronster could not be reached for comment. She is now in private practice with the Honolulu law firm Bronster Crabtree & Hoshibata.