PUC chair, green activist under investigation, accused of violating HI conservation law


IRONY: PUC Commissioner Hermina Morita, adored by environmentalists, is facing fines for violating Hawaii conservation and zoning laws

By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org

HONOLULU — Hermina Morita could be out as chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources is investigating Morita and her husband, Lance Laney.

The probe involves illegal buildings on conservation land in Hanalei Valley and an illegal bed and breakfast, “Taro Patch Hale.” A lawyer alleges the couple may have illegally graded their property, leading to a flood in the area in 1995 and the ongoing breaching of a stream bank.

Often called the “main diva for environmentalism,” Morita served in the state House from 1996 to 2011.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Morita to chair the powerful three-member PUC on Feb. 3, 2011, and environmentalists praised the move. The PUC regulates businesses that provide electricity, water, sewage, gas, transportation and phone communications. Morita also served on the Kauai Planning Commission, regulating county land-use ordinance, and on Kauai Police Commission, overseeing the local police force.

Some environmentalists and legislators say the governor is using the land board investigation as a “political hit.” But Department of Land and Natural Resources records show the investigation into Morita’s operation began in 2008, when an anonymous complaint was filed with the department, and it continued after a second complaint in 2013.

SERENITY, RAINBOWS AND WIRELESS CONNECTIVITY: Morita’s illegal vacation rental website could have brought her and her husband $1.3 million in 15 years

Honolulu attorney Les Iczkovitz, who represented area Hanalei residents, in October wrote Abercrombie and land department director William Aila to ask for an investigation into whether Morita and Laney were involved in illegal activity on their 3.18 acre-property. He claimed the grading may have caused environmental damage.

“If Ms. Morita and Mr. Laney actually built an illegal second residence, in the middle of a wetland on their property, without proper permits, so close to Hanalei River, one might suspect that this illegal building may have contributed to the 1995 flood event, and the ongoing breaching of the stream bank,” Iczkovitz wrote.

Morita is traveling and could not be reached for comment. Her husband has refused comment to all media outlets, but he told KITV News the bed and breakfast is closed.

On their now defunct website, the couple described their property:

“The fabled Hanalei Valley is one of the most revered and treasured of all the valleys on Kauai; a place where the sacred Taro plant has been cultivated for eons. Today still, the Taro is grown and harvested in the valley and these two cottages are the only ones in the valley. Feel the mana (grace) and beauty of this timeless place; travel back in time to a gentler, slower pace, truly relax. Five minutes to Hanalei bay and the other gorgeous beaches of Kauai’s North Shore.”

The two cottages rented for $130 and $140 a day, plus a $50 cleaning fee, which means the couple could have made as much as $87,000 a year without county or state authorization. If rented six days a week, the properties could have brought them as much as $1.3 million over the past 15 years.

BEAUTIFUL BAY: Hanalei Bay, one of the state’s most stunning beaches, is 5 minutes from Morita’s B&B

A review of Hawaii State Ethics Commission records shows Morita failed to disclose this vacation rental income to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, as she is required to do while serving in the Legislature. Financial disclosure records from her three years at the PUC are not public, under state law.

Les Kondo, executive director and the chief legal counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said he could not confirm whether the State Ethics Commission will investigate or take action against Morita, because most personnel matters are confidential.

According to documents obtained by Watchdog.org from the Department of Land and Natural Resources, “Information on the vacation rental ‘cottages’ was obtained via an internet web-search and included photographs of the alleged unauthorized cottages, current rates and taxes for vacation rentals, written descriptions of recent interior improvements i.e., new kitchens and testimonials from clients.”

The land department sent a notice of violation to Laney and Morita via certified mail Jan. 3. But Jan. 21, records show, Laney told the land department by phone the vacation apartments were occupied and future rentals were reserved with monetary deposits. Laney asked the land board for an extension.

On Feb. 28, Aila, in a letter, ordered the couple to shut down the operation and to appear at a March 28 meeting before the Board of Land and Natural Resources. Fines, they were told, could reach $30,000 — $15,000 for the illegal structures and $15,000 for the illegal bed and breakfast.

Under the zoning rules, Morita and Laney were allowed to build one home structure on the property, which they have owned for 30 years; a previous home was reportedly destroyed during Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

The property however, has five structures, according to state documentation.

During her 15 years in the Legislature, Morita spent all but two years as chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee and helped pass a number of controversial measures, including a law requiring a six-cent fee on every bottle and can sold in the state and an oil import tax that increased the cost of fuel.

ABERCROMBIE: Not sure if Morita will be reappointed

The Hawaii Superferry was closed, in large part because of Morita’s efforts to organize a campaign and lawsuit against it. She led the effort to remove boat tour operators from Hanalei River.

Morita has earned high marks from environmental groups, garnering a 100 percent approval rating from the Sierra Club, and is a board member of Environment Hawaii.

A spokesman said the governor has not made a formal decision regarding Morita’s reappointment. Her term expires in June.

Several lawmakers have signed a letter supporting Morita’s reappointment. That includes Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige, a Democrat who is running against Abercrombie in the 2014 gubernatorial primary.

Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com

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