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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 20, 2006

State trip sponsors must be disclosed

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 •  PDF: OIP opinion on state trade mission contributors

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

The names of contributors to Gov. Linda Lingle's trade missions must be made public, according to a ruling yesterday by the state Office of Information Practices.

The Lingle administration refused to release the list of contributors in June when first requested to do so by The Advertiser. Lingle aides sought donations to help cover the cost of large trade missions without adding an extra burden to taxpayers.

The Advertiser asked that the list of donors be released so the public would know who was helping to pay for the government missions and whether they were receiving favorable treatment.

"We've received the opinion and we certainly will follow it completely and use it as our reference in our future dealings," said Mark Anderson, deputy director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which organized the trade missions.

Lingle aides had argued that potential sponsors would be reluctant to contribute money if they knew their names would be released to the public. The aides also said disclosing how much each sponsor gave would make it more difficult to get the maximum from each donor.

The Office of Information Practices, headed by Leslie Kondo, said neither argument outweighed the public's right to know.

"The specific cash contributions and in-kind contributions by business sponsors of state trade missions do not fall within an exception to disclosure under the (state open-records law) and the records containing that information ... were therefore required to be disclosed," the agency wrote in an opinion signed by Kondo and staff attorney Jennifer Brooks.

The largest sponsor of the trade missions, DFS, a duty-free retailer, said it has no objection to making the information public.

"Absolutely not," said Sharon Weiner, DFS Hawaii group vice president. "I assumed it would be public."

DFS gave $35,000 in cash and $15,000 worth of in-kind contributions in response to solicitations by the Lingle administration.

The Lingle administration released some donor records earlier this year after The Advertiser and lawmakers raised the issue publicly, but the administration did not say until yesterday that its standard policy is to release donor names in the future.

House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), who spearheaded a House probe into the trade missions, said he was pleased with the ruling.

"The amounts and contributions, the cash and services (rendered) should be public information," Oshiro said. "It was a government-sponsored and led mission."

DBEDT Director Ted Liu was on a trade mission to Fukuoka, Japan, yesterday and unavailable for comment.

The Lingle administration has disclosed raising nearly $1 million in cash and in-kind contributions from Hawai'i businesses and organizations since 2003 to cover costs related to several overseas trade missions.

In addition to DFS, sponsors included Ko Olina Resort and Marina and NCL America. Those three companies pitched in a combined $120,000 to underwrite Lingle's Asia trade missions in the past two years.

DBEDT said the business donors helped offset the costs of trips such as last summer's 200-person trade mission to China and South Korea. In addition to any donations, business participants were required to pay their own travel expenses and a fee for joining missions.

What sponsors didn't bargain on was the controversy that enveloped the trade missions this year.

Mike Nelson, a Ko Olina vice president who traveled to China with state officials, said his company's $35,000 contribution for two missions was given with "the greatest intentions in the world" and he didn't anticipate it would lead to a controversy.

Nelson said Ko Olina would have still been a sponsor if the state were required to disclose his participation last year.

"We weren't involved from a selfish point of view," said Nelson. "(We thought) our collective dollars are far stronger than our individual dollars."

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.