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County takes over grant from Atay assistant

Insufficient information provided; $46,000 is still to be disbursed

Council Member Alika Atay speaks during a council Budget and Finance Committee meeting looking into a $100,000 county grant awarded to his executive assistant Brian Bardellini. Atay requested that discussions be conducted in executive session, which was rejected. • The Maui News CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

WAILUKU — Maui County officials terminated a $100,000 grant awarded to an executive assistant of Council Member Alika Atay for events celebrating Queen Ka’ahumanu’s 250th birthday and now will take over reviews and payments of $46,000 in outstanding receipts owed to vendors.

Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen discussed with the County Council Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday her plan to reimburse vendors after Atay’s executive assistant Brian Bardellini failed to provide missing documents and to answer questions.

The grant stems from two events honoring the queen’s 250th birthday in March and 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.

“OED will now change course to verify legitimate claims for these vendors who performed services and have not been paid,” Rasmussen said. “Our goal is to have all outstanding claims verified by Nov. 30 and vendor checks dispersed sometime in December.”

Seven Hana residents testified before Tuesday’s meeting to defend their event and organizer Claudia Kalaola. Residents said vendors from the Hana event still have not been paid $6,000 and criticized Atay for his executive assistant’s management of the grant.

Council Budget and Finance Chairman Riki Hokama rejected a request by Council Member Alika Atay to go into executive session to discuss problems with a $100,000 grant awarded to his executive assistant. He said he saw no basis for doing so. • The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

“Alika Atay has not once said mahalo to the ladies of the Ka’ahumanu Society or even say sorry for what we are going through to save our face,” Irene Pavau said. “Alika, nuff already. You did this to a benevolent Hawaiian society. Shame on you, what kind of Hawaiian are you.”

OED first began investigating the grant in May when the office received a letter from Kalaola, who was requesting the $6,000 that had not yet been paid to vendors. MACC officials also notified OED that they had not been paid over $2,200 and cited Bardellini for five contract and county violations.

At the time, Rasmussen said her office could not pay vendors directly and that payments had to go through the grantee, Bardellini. Her office audited the grant to review the full list of expenditures and presented a 235-page report to the council committee in July.

The report included emails and documents that showed that up to $10,000 had not yet been paid to entertainers, chaplains, security and other workers nearly four months after the events. Rasmussen’s office, which originally disbursed $54,000 for the events, decided to withhold the remaining $46,000 from Bardellini until OED could verify previous invoices had been paid.

On July 31, OED sent Bardellini a complete list of outstanding expenditures in the grant and notified him that the organization he set up for the grant was no longer compliant with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Rasmussen said the county cannot disperse funding to noncompliant organizations.

Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen discusses the $100,000 250th Queen Ka‘ahumanu birthday celebration grant awarded to Council Member Alika Atay’s executive assistant Brian Bardellini. Her office has taken over reimbursements from Bardellini for the remaining $46,000 left in the grant. • The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

On Sept. 7, Bardellini emailed OED telling officials he would respond by Sept. 30. Rasmussen told the council committee that his responses were not complete and “some inquiries were completely ignored.”

Some expenditures were disallowed, including a $3,500 oil painting, a rental car for a Maui resident and $5,000 to a Los Angeles marketing expert. OED also asked for explanations regarding hotel rooms for Maui residents, first-class plane tickets for guests and thousands of dollars in promotional work for the one-time event.

Bardellini declined to describe roles for a number of paid services and did not provide bank statements from July to September, Rasmussen said. Quarterly and final reports required in the grant also were not submitted.

Unresolved issues include Bardellini’s organization still not being DCCA compliant and Bardellini only providing 16 of the 44 checks he wrote, Rasmussen said.

She said a $380 laser printer, a two-way radio, a hard drive with images from the Hana event and purchased stock images have yet to be returned to the county.

“He’s refusing to return these items until we pay him for shipping and handling,” Rasmussen said.

In a previous letter to the council committee, Bardellini claimed that the county owed him more than $30,000 already paid to vendors. He also claimed that Kalaola received about $5,000 in cash and has yet to account for or return the money. He further claimed she submitted unapproved and unauthorized invoices from her family business.

Kalaola defended herself before the council committee, saying she has been a certified festival event executive organizing festivals, summer programs and other events for the last 9-1/2 years. She said the accusations come from someone who knows nothing about her or Hawaiian protocol and has “never done a successful event in Hawaii.”

“Why would I intentionally screw up the event that is by far the closest to my heart?” she asked. “Why would I bring dishonor to the queen who comes from the same aina as me? Why would I make a mockery of the 250th birthday of my queen?”

Kalaola told council members to ask her how many times she asked Bardellini for payments to vendors and how “unprofessional and wrong” it is to have a nonprofit bank account with only one person, Bardellini, on the account.

“Ask me how it feels to get thrown under the bus and your old ohana backs up and runs over you again and again,” she said.

Hana resident Jan Elliot, who has worked with Kalaola for the past decade, vouched for her experience and leadership in organizing events. Elliot said Kalaola has never had any “sketchy bookkeeping,” missing receipts or nepotism.

“I think it’s just shameful that these women worked so hard on this event and still not been reimbursed $6,000 of the $20,000 for the event, which I’ll tell you the county really got it’s money’s worth,” Elliot said. “They used their own money, they borrowed money and they couldn’t pay people.”

With the grant terminated, Rasmussen’s office can now reimburse vendors directly after review. She told the committee that she has never terminated a grant in her eight years in the office and never had vendors call to say they had not been paid.

“We feel strongly that this matter should not be left to the next administration, and as it stands we just have enough time to bring this to a close by the end of our term,” Rasmussen said.

“This entire situation has cost the county hundreds of staff hours, which could have been used productively for other work,” she continued. “It has taken an emotional toll on our OED staff members, including myself and many of the event vendors who have not been paid as well. Our job at OED is to protect taxpayers funds, to make sure our grantees perform to what is required in their contract. We are putting all that aside and doing our fiduciary responsibility to the County of Maui taxpayers.”

Council Chairman Mike White asked Rasmussen about the amount of money spent on marketing and media consulting, and how it compares to other one-time events. She said it was “staggering” considering the MACC event drew only about 550 people.

“Over $20,000 was spent on media and media consultants,” she said. “That’s just kind of unheard of.”

Bardellini did not respond for comment Tuesday, but a letter from a Honolulu attorney representing Atay’s office was sent to council members, OED staff, Office of Council services staff and others Monday. In the letter, attorney Shawn Luiz wrote that his clients may seek injunctive relief, reimbursement for attorney’s fees and “costs incurred due to denial for request of conflict counsel.”

“It appears a media firestorm has resulted from the alleged interactions between my clients and other council members and/or staff,” the letter reads. “Due to the serious nature of the allegations raised against my clients and vice versa, it would be in everyone’s best interests to maintain status quo and carry discussions that involve highly sensitive alleged misconduct of government officials in executive session rather than aired in the public.”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffrey Ueoka told council members that he believes Tuesday’s meeting is “just a discussion of a county grant” and not a personnel issue of a county employee. Before receiving his grant, Bardellini told county officials he would only be volunteering his time and not use any county resources in his capacity as council executive assistant.

The county Ethics Commission raised concerns in January 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.

“It’s not a current litigated matter so I’m not sure what justification this body would use to go under executive session,” Ueoka said.

Atay did not respond for comment after Tuesday’s meeting but argued during the meeting that further discussion should be in executive session.

He told the committee that his office retained an attorney and a certified public accountant to investigate the grant. He also asked for a third party to advise the committee — not Corporation Counsel attorneys because of their “personal conflict with me.”

“The letter cites a political agenda of this decision to discuss this grant and all of the related disputes in a public meeting, when this is outside of the norm,” Atay said. “An earlier agendized meeting was coincidentally scheduled four days before the primary election and now this comes up on the very week that election ballots are distributed. There’s a correlation, or a questionable correlation of the timing and closeness to this election.”

Hokama rejected the motion and said he has no basis to accept the motion or area of state statute to justify going into executive session.

He deferred any action on the item but recommended Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration further investigate the grant.

“This administration will work now to reconcile the terminated grant,” said county spokesman Rod Antone on Tuesday.

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

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