California water attorney Tim O’Laughlin, aka “The Hammer” has joined Mahi Pono as its new chief operating officer, a development that should strike fear into the hearts of everyone working to protect Maui’s water. His former law firm bio describes him as advising clients “on matters involving water, land use and planning, and the environment.” People who’ve worked with him say his specialty is privatizing public water.
The sanitized announcement of O’Laughlin’s hiring will be published in tomorrow’s Maui News, but MauiTime has been collecting intel on O’Laughlin ever since his name popped up several months ago as a possible Mahi Pono player.
The Sacramento-based attorney is a brutal litigator and counsel to many California water agencies, and has long been associated with Trinitas Partners, going back to when the three principals – Ryon Paton, William Hooper, and Kirk Hoiberg – decided to turn their investment/real estate expertise on Central California ag land.
They bought thousands of acres of ranchland around Oakdale, Calif. and turned it into almond farms, growing one of the thirstiest crops around in a region where water was carefully allocated. This is the same Trinitas that went on to partner with Canadian pension fund PSP to create Mahi Pono.
In a peculiar chain of events, Trinitas land was annexed into the Oakdale Irrigation District (the OID is represented by O’Laughlin) and began receiving water ahead of more senior members of the district, a controversial move that irks area farmers to this day.
On July 23, shortly after O’Laughlin had been listed as a possible testifier for Mahi Pono at a Maui Board of Water Supply meeting, the environmental group Protect Oakdale’s Water wrote on its website: “Is it ethical for an OID attorney who is paid handsomely to represent Oakdale’s taxpayer-owned irrigation district to simultaneously be representing the men who control Trinitas, considering that Trinitas still owes OID millions of dollars and is among the district’s largest water customers? Conflict of interest?”
The O’Laughlin announcement pretty much cements the growing perception that Mahi Pono is much more interested in water than planting crops and that its executives have no desire to set down roots in the community.
Let’s look at the current executive line-up: Ryon Paton, California-based non-farmer investment guy; president Ann Chin, former financial analyst based in California; Ceil Howe III, Calfornia-based farm family member-turned-water broker; and senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui, who freely admits that he has no farming experience whatsoever (but he does live here). And now water warrior COO O’Laughlin, who probably won’t take up full-time residence here either.
Don’t expect Tsutsui to stick around as more than a name on a business card – remember, he never gave up his original job as managing partner at the Oߵahu-based Strategies 360 lobbying firm when he joined Mahi Pono, and was just spotted making a hiring announcement in a Strategies 360 press release the other day.
In the meantime, O’Laughlin’s heavy hand is already being felt in the ongoing not-so-secret settlement discussions between Mahi Pono and Hui o Na Wai Eha. Sources tell MauiTime that Hui negotiators are chafing at the rough treatment they’re receiving in talks to try to settle the upcoming contested case between the two entities over water use.
O’Laughlin is used to playing big league California water hardball. Our aloha spirit may be no match for that.