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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 15, 2009

'Sneak attack' claims dismissed

By John Yaukey
Gannett Washington Bureau

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye

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WASHINGTON Sen. Daniel K. Inouye denied accusations yesterday by a group of mostly Native Hawaiians that he is trying to avoid public scrutiny of legislation that would grant them historic new status by hiding it in a defense bill.

The legislation in question known as the Akaka bill for its author, Hawai'i Sen. Daniel Akaka would grant Native Hawaiians the same status as American Indians. It would create a process for Native Hawaiian self-governance.

"I have never suggested that the Akaka bill be passed and adopted as part of the defense appropriations process," Inouye said. "I don't know where this nonsensical suggestion originated."

The accusations and response come as the decade-old Akaka bill approaches perhaps its best chance for passage yet.

It is scheduled to come before key House and Senate committees this week for votes that would open it up for full congressional consideration. President Obama has promised to sign it.

The group of critical Native Hawaiians, which includes separatists, accused Inouye of a "sneak attack" yesterday and said he was trying to avoid "any public review or input" on the bill.

About 100 people gathered for a demonstration opposing the Akaka bill process yesterday morning at the state Capitol.

'Ehu Cardwell, a spokes-man for the group, said protesters want Hawai'i's lawmakers to hold public hearings on the Akaka bill in Hawai'i.

"We need to get the feedback of the people," he said. "What we're asking for is a transparent process."

Akaka was as unhappy as Inouye about the accusations.

"It is very frustrating that opponents intentionally seek to spread misinformation about the bill," Akaka said last night. "This should call their credibility into question once again."

The Akaka bill has strong support among some Native Hawaiians, but others oppose it for multiple reasons. Separatists, who believe Hawai'i should be released from statehood, don't believe it goes far enough.

Other critics say they are worried about how claims for land under the Akaka bill would be handled.

The legislation would develop a process for organizing a Native Hawaiian government. It would rewrite the political landscape in Hawai'i, giving Native Hawaiians virtually the same rights conferred on American Indians and Native Alaskans. Eventually, it could give Native Hawaiians greater control over their highly valuable ancestral lands some 1.8 million acres annexed in 1898.

Some prominent members of the Native Hawaiian legal community have issues with the Akaka bill, although their objections focus on details and not the overall thrust of the legislation.

In a four-page analysis of the legislation, the Native Hawaiian Bar Association said some provisions would grant the federal government too much immunity against potential claims by Native Hawaiians, especially for land.

"The bill's provisions on claims and federal sovereign immunity appear to be overly broad and may prohibit lawsuits by individual Native Hawaiians," the bar association wrote. "They create an extraordinarily unusual circumstance in which Native Hawaiians are barred from bringing an action."

Congress has taken up the legislation seven times since it was first introduced in 2000. The bill has passed the House twice but has never cleared the Senate, where legislation sometimes requires 60 of 100 votes, and where a single senator can place a hold on a bill.

Akaka has said he expects he'll need 60 votes to eventually pass the bill.

Opponents of the legislation, which has changed shape several times, say the bill challenges the American principle of equality and opens doors to political volatility among Native Hawaiians.

In 2006, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush argued that the Akaka bill would "divide people by their race."

Justice Department officials from the Obama administration have been negotiating with the Hawai'i delegation about fine points in the bill, but the department supports it.