Mahi Pono director of community relations Tiare Lawrence told a politically active local businessman in January that there would be “a lot of money available” if he ran against South Maui State Representative Tina Wildberger in this year’s election. The businessman recently confirmed the conversation to MauiTime, but asked that his name not be used in print.
The phone call took place after Wildberger asked the Hawaii Foodbank in mid-January for a sample of potatoes Mahi Pono had recently donated to the organization so they could be sent out for pesticide and heavy metal testing at a California lab. Wildberger also was a vocal opponent last year of HB1326, the controversial water lease bill supported by Mahi Pono, which ultimately died in the State Senate. The businessman told Lawrence that he was a friend of Wildberger’s and not at all interested. He also told Wildberger about the Lawrence phone call.
“It’s disappointing and ironic,” Wildberger reflected, when contacted for comment. She was elected on a progressive platform remarkably similar to the one espoused by Lawrence in 2018 during her unsuccessful primary run against incumbent Kyle Yamashita for the District 12 house seat in the Hawai‘i legislature. In fact, Wildberger and Lawrence shared many of the same political donors.
“I can’t imagine her motivation,” Wildberger continued. “I am fighting for South Maui’s right to clean air, clean water, and food free from pesticides. That’s what I ran on and that’s what South Maui voters expect. I am doing the hard work of standing up to the establishment status quo. At one time, she might have supported such efforts.”
Mahi Pono is Maui’s largest landowner, after paying $267 million for 41,000 acres of ag land and 15,000 acres of East Maui watershed in December 2018. Last week it became the new majority owner of Maui Cattle Company, a hui of Maui’s five largest ranches, plus a newly-built slaughterhouse in Pu‘unene. Is the mainland-owned company (whose name means “to grow or cultivate properly”) now looking to control the island politically as well?
In addition to Tiare Lawrence’s phone call, there was talk of a private event allegedly hosted by Mahi Pono executive and lobbyist Shan Tsutsui for County Councilmember Tasha Kama in January. The company now has four lobbyists on its payroll, although there is nothing much in the State Legislature this year for them to lobby for on Mahi Pono’s behalf. All these actions seem targeted toward creating a friction-free political environment in which the company can operate as it pleases.
MauiTime sent a series of questions to Mahi Pono, Shan Tsutsui, and Tiare Lawrence last week asking about the Lawrence phone call and the other developments. Among the questions, we asked if Lawrence was speaking for Mahi Pono when she made the phone call. If so, we asked why Mahi Pono wanted Wildberger out of office. We also asked if Mahi Pono planned to become involved in this year’s elections by financially supporting or endorsing candidates at the state and local levels. We asked Lawrence why she made the phone call, and, if she wasn’t acting on Mahi Pono’s behalf, why she opposed Wildberger.
Mahi Pono’s O‘ahu publicist failed to respond to the questions by the deadline requested, nor did she respond to subsequent emails. Lawrence replied to MauiTime via email on Monday and suggested that she might have a comment if the paper would agree to print everything she said in her statement, verbatim. MauiTime editor Axel Beers told Lawrence that due to space constraints in print, the paper would be happy to consider her remarks and send her a proposed quote for her approval (a common journalistic practice). Lawrence never responded.
Prior to her hiring as Mahi Pono’s community relations director last year, Tiare Lawrence was one of the island’s fiercest advocates when it came to natural resources. She fought very publicly against the use of pesticides on Hawai‘i’s farms. In 2017, she worked with the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) as an “on the ground” organizer to “protect children and communities from pesticide drift…” according to an article on the organization’s website. In the article, Lawrence advocated for funding a program to “build healthy soil… and other necessary soil fertility amendments [to] help reduce the need for pesticides.”
Lawrence also worked full-time as a community organizer for the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA). The nonprofit organization’s mission includes “forwarding the transition in Hawaii from genetically modified organisms and pesticides… to a more sustainable and safe food system.”
During her 2018 primary campaign for the State House of Representatives seat, Lawrence’s website offered her position on a wide range of issues. Under “Diversified Agriculture,” she wrote: “Organic and sustainable farmers who are stewarding our lands, feeding our communities and contributing to our health and wellness should be given priority when it comes to access to prime farmland and limited water resources.”
She told MauiTime during a campaign interview that, if elected, “I definitely would support more pesticide regulation, especially ones that are cancer-causing chemicals and neurotoxins.”
However, Lawrence has had little to say publicly on the subject in the past month in the wake of a MauiTime story about Mahi Pono’s use of the decidedly unhealthy and non-organic chemical paraquat on its fields. The highly toxic chemical has been found to act on the nervous system and has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder.
Paraquat is most dangerous when it is first sprayed, leading to concerns about pesticide drift from experts such as Dr. Lorrin Pang, who advises the US Congress on public health matters. Despite her avowed anti-pesticide position, Lawrence attacked MauiTime’s story and its reporting, but did not address her employer’s use of a pesticide that is widely banned internationally, though not in the United States.
Kama declines to ‘talk story’ about campaign event
In early January, several sources who contacted MauiTime said County Councilmember Tasha Kama appeared at an event that was hosted for her by Shan Tsutsui, Mahi Pono’s senior vice president of operations, who also is registered with the state as a lobbyist for the company. Oddly, Tsutsui continues to hold a second job: that of managing partner of the Hawai‘i office of Strategies 360, a national lobbying and public affairs firm. When he was hired, Strategies 360 founder and president Eric Sorenson described Tsutsui as “an invaluable resource as we continue to take on the kind of projects that will shape the contours of politics and culture for years to come.”
With all those jobs – especially the politics-contouring and culture-shaping one – it’s hard to know which hat Tsutsui is wearing at any given time, like – for example – at Kama’s campaign event. When MauiTime editor Axel Beers contacted Kama about Tsutsui’s involvement at the January 9 gathering, she seemed a different person from the novice candidate in 2018 who proclaimed that with her communication skills and ability to bring people with differing viewpoints together, she offered a “breath of fresh air,” to Maui politics.
“It was a talk story,” she told Beers. “What about it?”
During the brief conversation, Kama confirmed that the campaign event had been “invitation only,” but not a fundraiser. She said it had not been hosted by Mahi Pono. However, when Beers asked if Tsutsui was the host, she hesitated, then responded, “It was hosted by my friend.”
She declined to name the friend, adding only the vague comment that “sometimes people just tell other people about other people and they just show up and I don’t have control over that. I just wanted it to be intimate and informal with my close friends just to let them know what my thoughts were.”
Kama would not disclose the names of anyone who attended, saying she would “ask my friend” if she could disclose his name or those of attendees and get back to Beers. However, Kama never did get back to Beers about the attendees, or whether donations were accepted at the event or a calabash passed around. She did not respond to follow-up emails and phone calls to her and her campaign manager that asked her to simply confirm Tsutsui’s attendance. Tsutsui did not respond to questions about the event either.
These “talk story” events are common occurrences in politician’s lives and there would be nothing untoward had Tsutsui hosted or attended the event. However, the refusal of both parties to address the issue is puzzling. It’s unclear if the event will show up on state-mandated campaign spending reports, which will be due April 30. However, Tsutsui did attend – and made donations of $250 each – at September, 2019 fundraisers on O‘ahu for Wailuku State Senator Gil Keith-Agaran and Upcounty Rep. Kyle Yamashita (Tiare Lawrence’s former political opponent). Both supported last year’s HB1326 water lease bill.
Why would Kama be of interest to Mahi Pono? During a campaign interview, she cited “water” as one of the top three issues she planned to focus on if elected.
Tips from the top?
Is it coincidence that the private “talk story” and the Lawrence phone call have both taken place since Sacramento water attorney Tim O’Laughlin was hired as Mahi Pono’s chief operating officer? After all, O’Laughlin is no stranger to pay-for-play politics. The Valley Citizen, a Modesto, California news organization, reported in 2018 on O’Laughlin’s political donations to US Congressman Jeff Denham, who favored the controversial practice of selling water from Central California water districts to Southern Joaquin Valley users. (Kind of like leasing East Maui’s water and using it for Central Maui farming.) As counsel to the Oakdale Water District, a position he continues to hold, O’Laughlin is a supporter of the practice. Since 2011, O’Laughlin donated $11,200 to Denham, according to the Center for Responsive Politics website, which uses information filed with the Federal Election Commission. His wife Paula, whose profession was listed on the website as “not employed,” donated an additional $8,200. Neither were residents of Denham’s district. Denham lost his Congressional seat in 2018.
Mahi Pono’s Lobbyist Roster
Water issues are likewise paramount for Mahi Pono at present. Currently, the company is involved in the lengthy bureaucratic process – necessary for the East Maui Irrigation company that it co-owns with Alexander & Baldwin – to obtain a 30-year lease to divert East Maui water for its agricultural operation.
Mahi Pono’s water quest was front and center during last year’s session at the State Legislature. Shan Tsutsui registered as a Mahi Pono lobbyist and was later joined by three others. Mahi Pono spent around $13,000 on the lobbyists in 2019, according to expenditures listed with the Hawai‘i Ethics Commission, but their apparent efforts to influence the passage of the water lease bill HB1326 were unsuccessful.
This year, Mahi Pono has five lobbyists registered with the state, although one, Adrian Kamali‘i, says he no longer works for the company. The others are Tsutsui, Jennifer Sabas, John Sabas, and former Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture chairman Scott Enright. Enright acted as a consultant to Mahi Pono last year; apparently, he now has a more official position. Enright did not return calls for comment on his current job description.
Former chief of staff to the late US Senator Daniel Inouye – the most influential politician Hawai‘i has ever had – Jennifer Sabas is a power hitter in state politics. Her O‘ahu-based consulting company, Kaimana Hila, serves big-name clients such as Lyft and Live Nation Entertainment. Neal Milner, political science professor emeritus at the University of Hawai‘i told Civil Beat in 2018, “[Sabas] has an enormous amount of connections from her days with the senator and his name still means something here. That’s like a money machine.”
Sabas received more than $12,000 of the Mahi Pono lobbying money spent in 2019. When contacted, Sabas confirmed that Mahi Pono is a client, but said that during this legislative session, she is “not advocating for any bills,” on the company’s behalf. “We’re just monitoring.” Her husband John Sabas works as an in-house lobbyist at the O‘ahu-based law firm Carlsmith Ball, which also has served as Mahi Pono’s legal counsel. He was paid $678.85 in 2019 for his work on Mahi Pono’s behalf. He, too, characterized this legislative session’s work as “monitoring.”
“Four lobbyists is a lot of firepower, but it doesn’t seem that strange to me,” said Colin Moore, the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawai‘i, Manoa. “As a newcomer to the island, they need to meet the right people and make sure that their message is understood by the legislators,” Moore told MauiTime in an interview. “That can take some time and you need to have the right introductions, and you need people who can get you those introductions and meetings. For better or worse, that’s really what lobbyists do and every big company has them.”
It remains to be seen how much political influence Mahi Pono will seek in the coming months, as the 2020 elections draw closer. For Tina Wildberger, however, the Lawrence phone call signaled that the future is here. Wildberger remains undaunted, but worries what will happen without elected officials who can “push back on government agencies to keep them from giving big business the green light to strip Hawai‘i of its resources.”