UH to perform its own review of financial management of Maunakea

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Information on background and current activity on Maunakea-related issues is presented during a University of Hawaii Board of Regents meeting at 'Imiloa Astronomy Cente in Hilo.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald The University of Hawaii Board of Regents meet to discuss a financial management audit of Maunakea activities at 'Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Regent Jeffrey Portnoy, left, speaks during a University of Hawaii Board of Regents meeting at 'Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.

The University of Hawaii will conduct its own internal audit of its Maunakea-related activities, a response to “public concerns that have emerged … regarding the university’s operational and financial management” of the mountain.

The Board of Regents on Thursday approved a resolution requesting the UH Office of Internal Audit conduct a financial management audit of “entities engaged in Maunakea stewardship and management,” according to the measure.

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The audit is slated to begin by March 1. Findings will be presented to the board by Sept. 30.

“We think the time is appropriate for us to proactively look at this, in light of public concerns,” board vice chairman Benjamin Asa Kudo said during the special board meeting at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo attended by about 30 people. “Hopefully the audit reveals recommendations, issues and problems … that we can improve on in terms of serving the mountain and its constituents.”

The audit will review all university funds, lease payments and any external funds that are received and used in the support of stewardship, management, education and other activities related to Maunakea.

It also will review fund transfers between the university and the Research Corporation of the UH, along with payments from Maunakea observatories and other third parties to university-related support programs, according to the resolution.

The audit comes on the heels of recent criticism of UH and its management of Maunakea.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs filed a lawsuit against UH late last year alleging a failure to protect ceded lands.

Mayor Harry Kim also is selecting committee members to “review and reorganize” the mountain’s management structure. Kim said a new structure will establish Maunakea as a monument of global significance while highlighting Hawaiians’ connection to the mountain, which some consider sacred.

Lawmakers also are considering a bill to replace the Office of Maunakea Management with a new entity. The bill also would limit the number of telescopes from 13 to nine by 2028.

During Thursday’s meeting, some board members raised concerns the UH internal audit wasn’t being conducted independently, which could cause critics to discredit its results.

At least one proposal currently at the state Legislature calls for a more comprehensive “forensic financial audit” to be conducted by the state auditor.

One testifier Thursday supported such a forensic audit because she believed it would provide a more objective view.

“My fear is that, those who have a … belief that the university has mismanaged Maunakea … will, I think, discount any audit that is done internally,” board member Jeffrey Portnoy said. “I would much prefer this audit be conducted completely independent of the university by an entity that is not associated with the university, so that whatever results are obtained cannot be challenged on the basis that it is an internal investigation.”

UH President David Lassner said during the meeting that the internal audit is not about “a bill that was introduced as a punitive measure against the university,” and he doesn’t expect to find “any criminal activity or fraud.” Instead, he thinks it could help UH administration better understand the “quite complicated” financial structure of Maunakea management and learn ways to improve it.

“From my perspective, this is actually not about the fact that there are individuals in the community who distrust everything that the university does,” Lassner said. “This actually is about helping us understand what we’re doing and how we can do better.”

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The resolution was approved unanimously with two abstentions.

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.