A group of Puna residents has filed an ethics complaint against a state representative for allegedly supporting a grant for a nonprofit that lacks its necessary permits.
An organization called the Puna Coastal Alliance sent a letter to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission Wednesday accusing Rep. Joy San Buenaventura of championing a $100,000 grant to the Kalani Oceanside Retreat, a nonprofit 19-acre retreat in lower Puna, to convert 11 cesspools into 12 septic systems.
However, the complaint alleges that the retreat, also known as Kalani Honua, has long operated without building permits, which San Buenaventura knew about when she supported the grant.
“I think it’s kind of a slap in the face to taxpayers,” said John DuBois, the only complainant named in the letter. “I don’t think the state should be awarding people for things done with impropriety.”
DuBois, who lives in a subdivision neighboring Kalani Honua, said the retreat has been a thorn in the local community’s side for some time. The retreat attracts thousands of visitors per year, according to a 2018 grant application from the business, and has recently held noisy events that go on for days, including Thrive Fest Hawaii 2020, a three-day music festival at Kalani that took place earlier this month.
“I don’t want to create trouble, but I want to address unfairness,” DuBois said. “I want to be a good neighbor, but I don’t know how to go about this any other way.”
DuBois said he hopes the complaint will prevent the state from sending taxpayer dollars to a business that is not operating in compliance.
However, San Buenaventura said the complaint misses a key point: the $100,000 grant was awarded in 2018, to a much different Kalani.
In 2018, the retreat was listed for sale by its owners, domestic nonprofit organization Kalani Honua Inc., after its business was drastically impacted by the Kilauea eruption that year. With practically no reserve funds, and with a sizable list of creditors, the retreat shut down and the nonprofit put the facility up for sale.
San Buenaventura said she supported the $100,000 grant in aid before the business announced its intention to sell, and that today, the grant effectively does not exist.
“Today, I wouldn’t support it at all,” San Buenaventura said.
But Lily Cash, board president of Kalani Honua Inc., said the retreat is still trying to secure the grant. Cash and her fellow board members took control of Kalani from the previous board in 2019, and took the retreat back off the market — a change of leadership, but not of ownership, which means the grant is still on the table, Cash said.
“When we took control, we though the grant had expired, too, which would have been a big bummer,” Cash said. “But we got a call from the county Finance Department a few months ago, and we’ve been working with them to get that money.”
Cash also acknowledged that some of the retreat’s building permits are still open, and the nonprofit is working to close them as soon as possible.
San Buenaventura went on to call the complaint itself “highly suspect,” saying that the only plausible reason for the issue to be raised in 2020, two years after the grant was approved, is that she is running for re-election this year.
“It’s a shame that negative campaigning has to start so soon,” San Buenaventura said, adding that she believes the complainants are supporters of a political opponent.
The representative also said the State Ethics Commission told her the complaint was never filed, but Daniel Gluck, executive director for the commission, said that all ethics investigations are confidential and may or may not notify the subjects of ethics complaints on a case-by-case basis.
Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaii tribune-herald.com.