Atay grant for queen’s events under review

$100,000 awarded to council member’s executive assistant

County Council Member Alika Atay is shown in a Facebook ad publicizing the 250th Celebration of Queen Ka’ahumanu event in March at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Atay requested $100,000 in a grant from the county for the event, which also included a protocol ceremony in Hana.

A Maui County Council committee is looking into a $100,000 grant for events honoring Queen Ka’ahumanu’s 250th birthday in March requested by Council Member Alika Atay and awarded to his executive assistant.

The county Office of Economic Development has provided a report to the council Budget and Finance Committee on the grant awarded to Atay’s executive assistant Brian Bardellini. The report referenced on the committee’s agenda for its Wednesday meeting includes emails and documents that show that up to $10,000 has not yet been paid to entertainers, chaplains, security and other workers nearly four months after the events.

The committee also plans to review marketing materials and expenses used for promotion of the events. The use of unapproved flyers, with Atay’s photo featured prominently; $5,000 paid to a Los Angeles marketing expert; and $680 for a database of 2,000 emails and 6,000 postal addresses are among the issues to be examined by the committee.

The county Board of Ethics raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest with Bardellini accepting a grant requested by Atay. The board recommended that Bardellini act as a volunteer and not make money off the events.

The Office of Economic Development will present its report during the committee’s 9 a.m. Wednesday meeting in Council Chambers.

Maui County Council Member Alika Atay (left) stands next to his executive assistant Brian Bardellini while holding a Fil-Am Voice newspaper outside the county building in a photo taken in December 2016. -- Fil-Am Voice photo via Facebook

Origins of the grant

Atay, who holds the Wailuku-Waikapu-Waihee residency seat, requested the $100,000 grant for the “250th Celebration of Queen Ka’ahumanu” last year during spring budget deliberations. The budget item for the fiscal year that covered July 1, 2017, to June 30 was approved by the council and included in the county budget.

On Oct. 29, Bardellini registered a state domestic nonprofit corporation, “250th Celebration of Queen Ka’ahumanu,” with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. He is identified as secretary and board member in DCCA filings.

The grant money was used to put on two events: a protocol ceremony hosted by the Hana chapter of ‘Ahahui Ka’ahumanu on March 17 at Hana Bay Beach Park, and a concert organized by Bardellini on March 23 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. The events were among several held in March to honor the Maui-born queen.

Atay declined to be interviewed by The Maui News either in person or by phone, and sent an email Tuesday saying he requested the money because he felt Queen Ka’ahumanu should be honored on her 250th birthday. He said $100,000 was “enough for an appropriate event,” considering his Wailuku residency district received no money in cultural program and economic development grants, while all other districts received between $120,000 to $200,000.

Keiki conduct a performance in March during a protocol ceremony honoring Queen Ka‘ahumanu’s 250th birthday at Hana Bay Beach Park. A $100,000 county grant, being reviewed by the council Budget and Finance Committee, funded the Hana and Maui Arts & Cultural Center events. -- Sharon Mau Photography

Bardellini applied for the grant Nov. 1, and Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen approved it on Nov. 16. However, county attorneys advised Rasmussen to get an opinion from the county Board of Ethics.

Ethics review

On Jan. 10, the board heard the issue. Rasmussen told Ethics Board members that the sole grant signer was Bardellini and that the funds were put in the budget by Bardellini’s employer, Atay.

“It just seemed like it was a little bit too, too many questions there to just maybe let it go,” she told the board, based on minutes of the meeting.

Bardellini complained to the board that the hearing was being used as a vehicle by the Department of Corporation Counsel to “perform a witch hunt on Council Member Atay and tarnish his reputation.”

Bardellini also declined to be interviewed in person or by phone and did not respond to The Maui News for comment for this story.

In its advisory opinion, the Board of Ethics found Bardellini to be the sole member of the grant-receiving entity, which did not at that time have officers and a board of directors “in the traditional sense.” The opinion also said that Bardellini intended to spend a significant amount of time on the event and might decide to compensate himself for his work if funds were available.

The board determined that Bardellini’s entity could accept the county grant, but it believed his role could be “incompatible with his county employment and may impair his independence of judgment.”

The board concluded that a “conflict of interest exists.”

The board recommended that Bardellini not use any county resources in his capacity as council executive assistant for the grant work, including county facilities, computers, phones, email and employee time.

The board also recommended that Bardellini not seek financial compensation directly or indirectly from the grant, and was less concerned about his involvement if he were a volunteer.

“It is the board’s hope that the 250th Celebration of Queen Ka’ahumanu can structure its operation in such a manner to allow Mr. Bardellini to contribute to this endeavor as a volunteer,” the board said.

Ethics Board Chairman Matt Macario said in an interview Thursday that the board had concerns about Bardellini’s involvement in the events, but he believed the panel “addressed everything in our authority.”

“Our authority is pretty limited,” Macario said. “We can only respond to specific things in the Maui County Charter. Unless things come before us by request or complaint, we have no basis for us to hear them.”

In his email, Atay rejected the notion that there was a conflict of interest. He said several current council members and their staff members have been involved with county grants under similar circumstances.

When asked if he consulted with Bardellini on the grant amount and the events, he replied: “My office works together on all county matters as a unified team.”

But the council member said he expected Bardellini to seek the grant. “As someone dedicated to community service and having experience in producing events, I expected Brian to apply,” Atay said in the email. “After public outreach conducted by OED, he was the only applicant for the grant.

“I expected the entire community to apply. I had hoped that cultural organizations throughout Maui County would be honored to be given the opportunity to recognize and honor our Queen Ka’ahumanu’s 250th birthday with a celebration. Any entity that had the skills and experience in producing events should have and could have applied. Brian was willing and more than able to assist a community group interested in applying.”

Actually, there was another applicant for the grant at one time.

Claudia Kalaola, an officer of the Hana chapter of ‘Ahahui Ka’ahumanu, initially applied for the grant but later asked the Office of Economic Development to withdraw her application after learning of Bardellini’s request. Kalaola formally withdrew her application in an email to Rasmussen in November, saying that she was “confident the funding provided in that request will be adequate to fund and expedite our planned festival here in Hana.”

Bardellini later made Kalaola president of his event entity and added Thomas Ko’i Lum as vice president and Laverne Bednorz as treasurer. Other board members are Sharol Nani Lay, Anna Wailena Pu, Shane Sinenci, Denise Nishikawa and Merv Oana.

Multiple attempts to reach Kalaola via email and phone were unsuccessful.

Events honoring queen

The Hana event was held March 17 and included a visit from Maui’s double-hulled voyaging canoe Mo’okiha O Pi’ilani, as well as entertainment by Raiatea Helm, CJ Helekahi and others. Kalaola, a certified festival and event executive, coordinated the free Hana event.

Rasmussen could not say how many people attended the Hana event because a report has not yet been filed with her office.

The MACC event March 23, which drew about 500 people, featured the Lim Family, known as the “First Family of Hawaiian Music,” and George Kahumoku Jr. Tickets cost $21, but many were sold for less or given away.

Funds from ticket sales were to be used to make a statue to be placed near the birthplace of the queen in Hana.

The after-event

So far, the county has disbursed $54,000 of the $100,000 grant — half of which went to the Hana ceremony for tents, food and entertainment, according to the Office of Economic Development report.

Kalaola provided invoices totaling $22,400, which she submitted to Bardellini about a week after the MACC event, but reimbursements remain $7,300 short.

In a June 12 email, she asked Office of Economic Development Grants Manager Jeremiah Savage about the status of checks to various unpaid vendors, because she had not heard “a single word” from Bardellini.

Kalaola asked Savage if the checks could be made directly to the vendor to bypass Bardellini. She personally was owed $1,000 for her services. (She waived $1,000 in fees for in-kind donations.)

“This is really embarrassing,” she wrote. “Entertainers, chaplains for the church service, security, tent and sound people, not to mention the ‘Ahahui Ka’ahumanu who so graciously took on the task of doing an authentic protocol ceremony for Queen Ka’ahumanu has not been reimbursed for any of their expenses.

“Everyone knows that this was a grant-funded event and are now questioning if there is any wrongdoing . . . Is there?”

The Office of Economic Development report includes emails from vendors, including Barefoot Cafe, Bakery and Catering LLC, which is owed $650 for crew meals, and Helm, who emailed Kalaola for an update on reimbursement for her airfare of $200.

Kalaola emailed the caterer to apologize and said she has received phone calls from other vendors. She thanked the businesses for emailing her because this gave her something tangible to show Bardellini, that “I am not making things up when I say vendors are screaming to get paid.”

Rasmussen sent an email to Kalaola on June 19 letting her know that her office has asked Bardellini to clarify a list of invoices he submitted before both events. Rasmussen instructed Bardellini to provide additional documentation to prove that each invoice has been paid due to complaints from many of the Hana vendors.

Bardellini claimed that some of Kalaola’s invoices were not authorized, so Rasmussen has asked him to submit minutes from the group’s meetings to try to resolve the dispute.

Meanwhile, Bardellini has submitted invoices to be reimbursed from the remaining $46,000 of the grant. Rasmussen told him that she is withholding payment until she can verify that previous invoices have been paid.

“Brian has not provided the information we requested, and therefore, we are not proceeding with any further payments,” she wrote to Kalaola in the June 19 email. “We are doing our best to protect the vendors and the county. It is in his court right now to provide the information.”

Rasmussen emailed a statement Friday reiterating that her focus going forward is to protect the vendors and county. She added that her office has “full authority” under the County Charter to ask for verification of spending and to withhold funds, if necessary.

“We have seen a barrage of comments from Bardellini stating that this is a witch hunt and the Atay team are victims here,” Rasmussen said. “In my view, the true victims here are the vendors who in good faith performed a service for this event and have yet to be paid, and the County of Maui taxpayers who are footing the bill.”

Bardellini the promoter

Before serving as Atay’s executive assistant and campaign manager, Bardellini lived in California and produced events for a living, he told the Ethics Board. He told the board that he used to produce 300,000-people events with $20 million budgets.

He expected about 2,000 people for the MACC event and was confident he could pull it off in two and a half months, he told the board.

The MACC reported only 251 tickets were sold through the box office, with another 400 tickets taken by Bardellini on consignment, Rasmussen said in her report. She said the tickets were supposed to be sold for a reduced price, but Bardellini returned 274 tickets to the box office.

A total of about 700 tickets were sold or distributed, but only about 500 people showed up, Rasmussen said.

Kekoa Enomoto, a member of the Wailuku chapter of ‘Ahahui Ka’ahumanu, said in a phone interview last month that about 100 members of the royal societies attended the MACC event, but all had to buy tickets because no one came dressed in their full regalia. Bardellini had invited 400 royal society members to dress in regalia for the MACC event and planned to waive the ticket fee, according to his grant application.

Atay defended Bardellini’s production of the event and reiterated that “no one else countywide had stepped up to honor our queen.”

“Mr. Bardellini served his community by volunteering 100 percent of his time and donating 100 percent of the proceeds,” Atay said in the email. “I have spoken with several alii as well as one of the governor’s cultural appointees and several cultural leaders who attended the event who told me they thought that the event honored the queen in a very beautiful way.”

There was, in fact, another event honoring the queen, a free lei-draping ceremony at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center on March 16. The Wailuku chapter of ‘Ahahui Ka’ahumanu held an opening protocol ceremony in full regalia with an oli, pule, hula, mele and history of the queen. The center stage area of the Kahului mall was packed.

The MACC said in its settlement summary, addressed to Bardellini, that it still is owed $2,261.42. Savage sent an email June 7 notifying Bardellini that his office paid $7,500 to him for use of the MACC, which should be sufficient to cover the remaining deficit.

The MACC also noted five contract and county violations:

• A notice of violation from the Public Works Department for nonapproved poles with greenery that had been erected along Wahinepio Avenue.

• Bardellini’s group did not abide by the agreement of no returns for consigning paid and complimentary tickets, returning more than 80 percent of tickets resulting in confusion for patrons and staff.

• A marketing website was created with information that was counter to the contract with no approval.

• Tickets were sold at less than face value from the contract without approval.

• Bardellini’s group was not in control of vendors, with one setting up in a donor location not approved by the center.

Rasmussen also wrote to the committee that her office was “very disappointed” that the event’s emcees, which included Atay, failed to mention that the event was sponsored and funded by the County of Maui.

“It is rather disconcerting that a $100,000 contributor to this event was never mentioned or thanked by those onstage,” she said.

Spending on promotions

Nearly $20,000 was budgeted for marketing and advertising, according to Bardellini’s grant application. Of that amount, more than $2,000 was spent on Facebook ads. One of the ads prominently featured a photo of Atay and a detailed description of his work, according to the Office of Economic Development report.

While Atay had a social media poster made for him, his co-emcee, Alaka’i Paleka, did not have an ad. In addition, all the Facebook posts that accompanied each entertainer had the same comments without a biography. Only Atay’s Facebook post listed his background.

Rasmussen reported finding social media postings, including the one featuring Atay, which her office did not see in advance and was not asked to approve.

“We’ll leave it up to the council to draw their own conclusions,” she said Friday.

Atay said his understanding is that the Office of Economic Development saw all ads used for the event and that Bardellini has not received any notice about unapproved advertising.

He believed that the Facebook ads were “standard industry practice” for advertising an event.

Other marketing-related invoices submitted by Bardellini included $682.05 to Infogroup for 6,123 postal addresses and 2,112 email addresses. The Nebraska-based company bills itself as the “leading provider of innovative business data and marketing solutions that are proven to increase customer acquisition and retention,” according to its website.

Bardellini’s group also paid $5,000 to Andrew Bagg of Los Angeles (no mailing address was listed) for marketing management and consulting on social media sites, ad campaigns and other services. Bagg was flown to Maui as a consultant for the MACC event and a $538.39 invoice was filed for his travel.

Atay denied that the event or any of its expenses were used for political gain. He said Bardellini “simply stepped into a void to make (the event) happen.”

“None of the resources obtained through the grant were, or will be, used for my campaign,” Atay said in the email.

Bardellini recently made news for violating the county’s workplace violence policies and has been barred since October from the seventh floor of the county building, where the Office of Council Services is located.

He also was involved in an attempt to prevent state Department of Agriculture workers from entering and treating property he rented in Haiku that was infested with invasive little fire ants. The Agriculture Department has banned Bardellini from interacting with state Agriculture Department workers and entering state offices due to abusive language, inappropriate behavior and attempts to provoke physical confrontations with staff members.

It appears the Atay-Bardellini connection continues in the current year budget. Atay is seeking $20,000 from the Wailuku Economic Development and Cultural Programs fund for a natural farming symposium put on by HINA Organic, according to the Office of Economic Development budget.

Bardellini is listed as HINA Organic director, chief executive officer and secretary, according to DCCA filings.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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