$46,000 of grant to Atay’s assistant is being withheld
Economic Development Office seeks to clear up claims of unpaid vendors for events
WAILUKU — It is unclear how much of the remaining $46,000 of the $100,000 county grant awarded to Council Member Alika Atay’s executive assistant will be disbursed, the county Office of Economic Development director told a council committee Wednesday.
Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen told the council Budget and Finance Committee that the rest of grant for events honoring Queen Ka’ahumanu’s 250th birthday in March and awarded to Atay’s executive assistant Brian Bardellini is being withheld due to reports of unpaid vendors from funds already disbursed.
“The only leverage the county has is to withhold future funds before everything is verified,” Rasmussen told the committee. “If I give out all the funds, there is no more leverage. Then we just have to pick up the pieces. We really want to be careful and that’s our responsibility to the County of Maui taxpayers.”
The Office of Economic Development also questioned invoices turned in for reimbursement by Bardellini. Those included $5,000 paid to a Los Angeles marketing expert, $680 for a database of thousands of emails and postal addresses, and $400 for a laser printer for a one-time grant.
“We don’t know why he (a marketing expert) was hired for the event,” Rasmussen said. “We have lots of marketing people on island. This is a local event so why do we need someone from Los Angeles?”
The grant for two events honoring the queen’s birthday in March was inserted into the county budget by Atay and awarded to Bardellini. The events were held March 17 in Hana and March 23 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
The Office of Economic Development presented its 235-page report to the council Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday, which included emails and documents that show that up to $10,000 had not yet been paid to entertainers, chaplains, security and other workers nearly four months after the events.
The unpaid amount also includes about $2,200 still owed to the MACC, which also cited Bardellini for five contract and county violations.
Rasmussen told the committee that on Monday and Tuesday, Bardellini submitted canceled checks to verify payments for the Hana event that her office has been seeking for the past several weeks. The request for the canceled checks followed several calls and emails to her office from vendors saying they had not been paid.
“I cannot recall a time where we’ve ever had vendors of events call up and say I didn’t get paid for this event,” Rasmussen said. “I can’t recall a time it’s ever happened before this.”
The submittal of the canceled checks began arriving at Rasmussen’s office a day after The Maui News report of the grant and the connection between Atay and Bardellini and two days before the beginning of the committee meeting.
She expects her office to complete its review of the unpaid invoices soon and to begin verifying invoices for the remaining money. Rasmussen did not know how long this process would take and would depend on responses and cooperation of Bardellini.
Bardellini did not respond for comment after Wednesday’s meeting but did submit written testimony to the committee. He claims that the county owes him more than $30,000 already paid out to vendors.
Bardellini also claims that president of the entity he formed to receive the grant funds, Claudia Kalaola, received about $5,000 in cash and has yet to account for or return the money. He added that Kalaola, who organized the Hana event, submitted unapproved and unauthorized invoices from her family business.
Attempts to reach Kalaola were unsuccessful Wednesday evening.
In the statement, Bardellini said that he complied with the special conditions of his grant agreement, including not being compensated, and blamed the Office of Economic Development for delays in verifying payments. He said the office has all the documents to verify $85,000 of expenses currently invoiced.
Trinette Furtado, Atay’s other executive assistant who said she was testifying Wednesday as an individual, defended Bardellini.
She said that the council committee’s review appears to be “favoritism or retaliation,” that this grant has been scrutinized more than others, and that other council members and their staff have engaged in similar activity.
Furtado, who is running for the council’s Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat, questioned Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura’s involvement in Wailuku First Friday, which she previously coordinated, and Council Member Stacy Crivello’s executive assistant Tina Thompson’s role with the Festivals of Aloha. Both events receive county funds.
Sugimura and Crivello discounted the comparison. Sugimura said she stopped coordinating Wailuku First Friday as soon as she decided to run for office in 2016. She said she only advertised her role in the event on her campaign materials because she was part of it for nine years.
“It’s crazy to think that I’m still working the event and I’m going to vote on it,” Sugimura said. “I take that as an insult personally.”
Crivello said that Thompson is not a grantee of the Festivals of Aloha, compared to Bardellini solely signing for the grant for the queen’s birthday events.
Rasmussen said she did not see Bardellini’s events as “apples to apples” to Sugimura’s and Thompson’s because they did not directly receive or have access to money from the grant.
Council Chairman Mike White was critical of Atay and Bardellini and told the committee the “solution is not in OED” but with Atay’s office.
Atay attended the meeting but his only remarks in the meeting focused on getting the vendors in Hana paid. Atay did not respond for comment after the meeting.
“I appreciate Mr. Atay looking for solutions, but he doesn’t have to look past the inside of his door,” White said.
Rasmussen characterized working with Bardellini as “chaotic,” “sucks staff time” and cuts productivity for an unclear purpose. She said she has received a couple hundred emails from Bardellini that she did not include in the report.
“I really just shake my head because it’s just this kind of vitriol language and intimidation and constant accusing us of retaliation witch hunt,” she said. “Again, all we’re trying to do is verify your expenses. Just give us the information. But it’s clouded with all of these vitriolic emails and accusations and intimidation.
“We’re just at the point of show us the information and we’ll move on,” she continued. “It’s been extremely disruptive to our department. I have staff members who are afraid if he walks into the office that if they’re alone they don’t know how to handle him. Because of the intimidation, you’re not sure what his move is next.”
Bardellini made news recently 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, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Two hours after the meeting, Atay emailed Office of Council Services Director Maria Zielinski about filing several violence in the workplace complaints against council members and Office of Economic Development staff for “harassment and bullying.” Atay listed Council Members White, Riki Hokama and Bob Carroll, as well as, Office of Economic Development Grants Manager Jeremiah Savage, Legislative Analyst Michele Yoshimura and Rasmussen.
Responding to Atay’s email, White told The Maui News in a phone interview that this was another example of how Atay’s office responds “when somebody questions the legitimacy of their actions.”
“This is following what I felt was a very useful review of the shortcomings of the way Brian Bardellini has conducted himself in dealing with this grant,” White said. “They didn’t like the fact that we were questioning it so they continue to use bullying as their tactic by filing a complaint against us.”
Rasmussen said she requested police at her office at a grant workshop earlier this month not knowing if Bardellini would show up and be disruptive. County attorneys also requested police to escort Rasmussen and her staff from the Council Chambers after Wednesday’s meeting.
Hokama deferred any recommendations or actions until a final report is completed by the Office of Economic Development.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.