County settles ex-film commissioner suit
Payout was nearly $157,000 in legal fees and settlement
Maui County paid former Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld $60,000 late last year to settle a federal court lawsuit filed in July 2016 against the county and Mayor Alan Arakawa.
The county also expended $96,815.33 for the employment, as special counsel, of the law firm of Kobayashi, Sugita and Goda to defend Arakawa in his individual capacity.
The payments, totaling $156,815.33, were completed in December. Last week, the settlement amount and legal fees were provided to The Maui News after the information was sought through a request for government records made under the state Uniform Information Practices Act.
When asked for comment, Donenfeld said: “The county and I settled this case out of court.” He declined further comment.
Via email, Mayor Arakawa said Donenfeld’s case had no merit, and it was only settled out of court because it would be less expensive than proceeding through a trial.
“All the evidence and deposition showed he had absolutely no case,” Arakawa said in an email. “However, because the court system is so high, our corporation counsel recommended we settle and council recommended we settle, so we settled.
“It just goes to show that the system that we have can really protect people who have frivolous cases and bring it before the county,” he said. “It’s much less expensive to just settle it because even if we tried to recover the costs from him we wouldn’t be able to because he wouldn’t have the means to do it.”
On the merits of the case, Arakawa maintained that “we were absolutely in the right.”
The mayor said that, in Donenfeld’s deposition, “Harry actually admits all the charges were pretty much hearsay.”
The settlement appears to bring to a close the fallout of Donenfeld’s firing as county film commissioner in September 2013.
At the time, the reasons behind his dismissal were undisclosed, described only as a “personnel issue.”
The firing came about six months after Socrates Buenger opened the Maui Film Studios, when he began leasing a 21,000-square-foot soundstage at the Maui Lani Village Center and worked with Donenfeld to gain a foothold for Maui in film industry production.
Also, around the time of Donenfeld’s firing, the new Maui Film Studios lost three productions with combined budgets amounting to $300 million, Buenger said at the time. He added that all three cancellations happened on the same day, which he found “kind of curious.”
When asked why his film studio was struggling, Buenger then attributed it to Arakawa’s “close relationship” with then part-time Maui resident Ryan Kavanaugh, chief executive of Relativity Media.
In March 2013, Kavanaugh was honorary chairman of the Mayor’s Kokua Ball at the King Kamehameha Golf Club in Waikapu. The celebrity-style red carpet event cost attendees $125 to $1,000 per ticket and included the attendance of Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody. The event was a fundraiser for the Mayor Arakawa Community Kokua Fund, a nonprofit that provided money to island charities, community groups and individuals.
Kavanaugh had his own plans to build film studios in Hawaii — one on Maui and the other on Oahu — with a total $400 million investment. But the film producer also was seeking enhanced film industry tax credits from the state Legislature, with the lobbying assistance of the Arakawa administration.
Kavanaugh had said that the cost of filming in Hawaii and the shortage of production studios were reasons the film industry stayed away from the islands.
In 2016, Donenfeld filed a federal wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against Arakawa and the county, alleging that his firing was to appease Kavanaugh, who wanted him terminated and not because, as claimed by Arakawa, he failed to show up at work.
The lawsuit alleged negligence, breach of contract and violations of Donenfeld’s privacy, civil and due process rights.
The lawsuit identified Kavanaugh as a “longtime financial backer of Mayor Arakawa’s campaigns and self-named charity.”
It reported that Kavanaugh “also lent his name and celebrity to the mayor’s causes,” even offering tickets for the mayor and his wife to attend the Golden Globe Awards ceremony in Hollywood as his personal guests. (County Managing Director Keith Regan and his wife, Lynn Araki-Regan, went instead.)
But just four days before the Kokua Ball and the same day as The Maui News’ publication of a story about Buenger’s film studio at Maui Lani, Kavanaugh sent emails to the Arakawa administration, saying he was “sick of Harry,” and calling him a “lightweight who just gets in the way.”
“I’m done with this Harry guy,” Kavanaugh said in an email to Jock Yamaguchi, an executive assistant to the mayor. “I’m no longer going to work on the Hawaii initiative unless Harry is no longer involved. He knows nothing about the film or TV business, is always lying to the mayor and has done nothing but get in the way and cost Maui opportunities and real upside. I’m going to think on it, but I don’t think I want my name involved as long as he is involved.”
The county released the emails in November 2015 in response to a request for information under the Uniform Information Practices Act.
The Donenfeld lawsuit noted that Kavanaugh donated the maximum amount allowable to Arakawa as a candidate and that he contributed $57,500 of the $59,122 donated to the Kokua Fund in 2012. Arakawa’s financial disclosures to the county Board of Ethics show he was chairman of his nonprofit in 2011 and 2012, while he was mayor.
According to Donenfeld’s lawsuit, around the time of the Kokua Ball, Kavanaugh was working with officials in the Arakawa administration to lobby state lawmakers for a bill to as much as double state subsidies for the film and TV industry in Hawaii.
The lawsuit reported that Donenfeld’s reputation was damaged, and that he suffered lost benefits, public shame and was shut out of further employment in the film industry.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.