Another questionable million dollar rail contract in Honolulu?
Former Hawaii Congressman Colleen Hanabusa wasn’t the only person Honolulu Rapid Transit Authority officials wanted to hire to help them get more money for the rail project. besieged city.
They also wanted Denis Dwyer, a lobbyist from Washington, DC who has worked in the rail business since at least 2005.
Internal emails and other procurement records obtained by Civil Beat as part of a public documents request show that senior HART officials, including board chairman Toby Martyn and executive director Lori Kahikina , were planning to hire Hanabusa and Dwyer before they even started a bidding process.
In Hanabusa’s case, they reduced the specifications of the bid to the point where it was the only qualified bidder.
For Dwyer, they picked him and his company, Williams & Jensen, from a group of three other bidders, including well-known lobbying firms, some of which have close political ties to Hawaii and have already secured federal dollars. for the rail.
The documents show, however, that these other ventures were never seriously considered.
HART issued a request for proposals for a federal lobbyist on February 26. But in January, Kahikina already referred to it in emails with Martyn as “Denis’s contract.”
She was not alone. The emails contain further explicit references to Dwyer’s and HART’s desire to put him back on the project’s payroll long before he begins to seek offers from other companies.
HART officials wanted Dwyer to work with Hanabusa so they could identify the financial difficulties of the rail project and help secure more funding to close what is currently estimated to be a deficit of $ 3.6 billion.
Among the questions was whether Dwyer or Hanabusa would take the initiative to put pressure on the federal government.
“Clarification: Will Denis be the liaison for HART or the council?” Cindy Matsushita, executive director of the board, wrote in an email on Jan. 14. “It might sound like a good point now, but there might be a time when this distinction matters. “
“Yes, we need to talk – maybe with Toby and Lori,” replied Rick Keene, deputy executive director of HART.
“I bet Denis has a better relationship with the congressional delegation than Colleen. For example, he helped (US Senator Brian) Schatz draft the language that was in the recent HART funding extension bill. Also, I think Colleen should be a registered lobbyist to do this – maybe that’s not a problem.
Kahikina refused to speak to Civil Beat about this story.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t see a benefit for myself or HART,” she said via text.
Martyn, Dwyer and Hanabusa did not respond to Civil Beat requests for comment.
Both Keene and Matsushita were on the three-person evaluation committee that noted the bids and awarded Dwyer’s company the contract in April worth up to $ 1.4 million. The third member of this committee was HART spokesperson Joey Manahan.
HART’s procurement procedures have been under intense scrutiny since April, when it announced that it had awarded a contract worth nearly $ 1 million to Hanabusa.
The news sparked a massive backlash from the community and in May, the former congressman joined Mayor Rick Blangiardi at a press conference in saying she was relinquishing the contract and would instead serve as a unpaid volunteer on the HART Board of Directors.
Controversy boiled again earlier this month when HART released internal Civil Beat emails as part of a public registration request revealing agency officials discussed hiring Hanabusa as early as December, although the call for tenders was not launched until the end of February.
Hanabusa and HART officials, including Kahikina and Martyn, said they had done nothing wrong and town lawyers said there had been no breaches of government contracts. Still, Kahikina said she would refer the case to the Honolulu Ethics Commission.
But, unlike Hanabusa, Dwyer was not the only consultant bidding to become the federal lobbyist for HART. Three other companies have submitted proposals to HART, including Dentons US, Strategies 360, and Holland & Knight. Each business had its competitive advantages.
For example, Dentons, a national firm with a strong lobbying presence in Washington, DC, had recently merged with Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, one of Honolulu’s largest law firms.
According to Dentons’ proposal, Bill Kaneko, who had been campaign manager for former Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie, would be one of the main points of contact for HART.
The company also bragged about its close ties to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, noting that the company’s team members have had a decades-long relationship.
“We are confident that no other offeror can make a similar claim,” said the proposal.
The Strategies 360 team, according to its proposal, would be led by Andy Winer, Brian Schatz’s former chief of staff, “who has a deep understanding of the Honolulu rail transport project.”
Winer is one of Hawaii’s best-known political agents and has many connections in Washington, DC, having worked on the campaigns of three of the four members of the Hawaii Federal Delegation including Schatz, U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono and Congressman Kai Kahele.
He would be joined by John White, himself a former chief of staff to Hirono when she was in the House of Representatives and a former executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership, a labor group that has spent millions of dollars to support the project in electing railways. -Friendly politicians in the public service.
Holland & Knight is a national lobbying company with fewer connections to the islands but more direct experience in securing federal grants for transportation infrastructure, including hundreds of millions of dollars for rail projects in Charlotte, in North Carolina.
Representatives for each of the losing bidders declined to comment for this story.
A story with Hart
Dwyer and his company, Williams & Jensen, drew heavily on his past experience working with the city and HART on rail and his already established relationship with the Federal Delegation.
According to the proposal, Dwyer worked as a lobbyist for the project from 2005 to 2018, with contracts worth around $ 300,000 per year.
He was involved in securing a $ 1.55 billion grant from the Federal Transit Administration in 2011 and has worked in recent years to convince the agency to release the remaining $ 744 million it has withheld in due to problems with the project, including massive cost overruns and construction delays.
“In his personal experience working with WJ, Denis Dwyer has proven to be extremely effective with this project,” Keene wrote in his April 16 assessment of the Williams & Jensen proposal.
“Denis Dwyer’s experience is second to none and he can really ‘kick start’ on this engagement, which is important given the critical timeframe in which HART operates. “
The only category where Dwyer failed, by scoring criteria, was price.
Williams & Jensen came in second with a total contract price of $ 1.395 million over six years. Dentons US offered the best value at $ 888,000 while Strategies 360 had the highest total offer at $ 1.62 million.
HART’s selection of Williams & Jensen raises questions about whether the agency complied with Hawaii’s procurement code, particularly the ethics provisions.
For example, the law states, among other things, that public officials involved in public procurement must “remain independent of any actual or potential bidder” and “encourage economic competition” by “ensuring that all people have an equal opportunity. to compete in a fair and open environment.
The code calls on officials to “remain impartial” while avoiding social interaction with potential bidders and other conflicts of interest.
Violations can be punishable by misdemeanor, fines and dismissal.
Randy Ishikawa, a city lawyer who represents HART, did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.
The emails show Ishikawa was in close communication with Martyn, Kahikina and other HART officials as they discussed the nuances of the procurement process and whether any of those discussions should have. held in public, such as the public portion of a HART board meeting.
Almost all of Ishikawa’s responses were redacted from emails posted by HART, with HART officials citing the need to protect solicitor-client privilege.
Krishna Jayaram, the company’s senior deputy legal counsel, addressed questions about the facts to HART.
“And since our department provides legal advice to HART, we are not available to discuss it further,” he said in an email.
Even though HART officials and the companies that bid on the contract won’t talk about what happened, at least one state senator does.
Earlier this week, Senator Kurt Fevella called on the FBI and the Hawaii attorney general’s office to launch a criminal investigation.
“For me, this is fraud. This is fraud at its highest capacity, ”he said.