Wespac Fails to Account for Food, Drink, at 2012 Reception It Hosted for CCC

posted in: Fisheries, Marine, November 2013 | 0
What if you threw a party with no food?
In Hawai`i, that is simply unthinkable. Yet, if the federal government’s response to our repeated requests for information about a party thrown by the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac) last year are to be believed, more than 100 guests at an event hosted by the council at the Hulihe`e Palace had nothing to eat or drink.

Here’s a brief recap – at least as brief as we can be.

In the course of four days (from April 30 to May 3), Wespac hosted two parties for the Council Coordination Committee. The committee, which is made up of executive directors, chairs, and vice chairs of the eight federal fishery management councils, meets twice a year: once in the Washington area and once in one of the eight regions, with the corresponding regional council being host.

The first reception of the 2012 CCC meeting was at the Mauna Lani resort. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency for all regional councils, the hotel collected payment directly from those in attendance and Wespac was not involved.

The second reception was held at the Hulihe`e Palace. To transport guests, Wespac contracted with Jack’s Hawai`i, Inc., which provided two large coaches to ferry CCC members and their guests to the site of the party, nearly 30 miles away in the town of Kailua-Kona. That cost $488.40. Wespac also paid the Daughters of Hawai`i $500 to rent the site, $2,500 to Big Island Tents to set up canopies, $1,014.58 to Waimea Party Rentals for furniture, and $500 to John Keawe, a slack-key guitar master. Costs for the set-ups, transportation, and entertainment total more than $5,000.

But, apparently, guests were on their own when it came to food and drink. Wespac has told the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration it has no records other than what it has provided so far.

FOIA Frustrations
If we are still writing now about an event that took place more than 18 months ago, it can’t be helped. The final response of the Department of Commerce to a series of Freedom-of-Information-Act requests Environment Hawai`i filed in connection with the CCC meeting was made in late September. (Wespac, as a contractor to the National Marine Fisheries Service, does not respond directly to FOIA requests. Rather, they have to go through NMFS and its parent agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and, ultimately, the Department of Commerce. Still, as a federally funded agency, Wespac is accountable under FOIA.)

We first reported on the CCC meeting in June of last year, the same month in which our initial FOIA requests were filed. An article in the May 2013 edition of Environment Hawai`i reported on costs associated with the CCC meeting other than the costs of the receptions, which Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds stated were paid for entirely by the people in attendance. (The cost to the federal government of 66 federal employees or council members in attendance came to more than $236,000, we found.)

We continued to press NOAA for information on the receptions, however, and on the omission of any information on costs associated with the presence of several personnel associated with Wespac.

On September 26, Barbara Fredericks, assistant general counsel for administration in the Department of Commerce’s Office of the General Counsel, responded. Her letter stated that NOAA had conducted “an additional search for records responsive” to the appeal we had filed. Since Wespac had not been involved in collecting funds for the event at the hotel, there were no responsive records, Fredericks wrote.

As regards the Hulihe`e Palace affair, Wespac did produce records that showed it had paid for the tents, furnishings, and buses with company credit cards and for the music and venue with checks drawn on Wespac’s bank account.

But it also provided four “receipts,” each consisting of a statement on Wespac letterhead purported to be signed by the council’s fiscal officer, Randy Holmen. In each case, the receipt indicated that Kitty Simonds had given Holmen a personal check to reimburse the council for one or another of the expenses that Wespac had paid. (Copies of the checks were not provided.)

The first two of these receipts were dated May 4, 2012, acknowledging Simonds’ check 7118 in the amount of $500 to pay for rental of Hulihe`e Palace and another payment of $500 (no check number provided) for the services of John Keawe.

The third receipt, dated May 23, 2012, was for Simonds’ check 7360 in the amount of $2,499.98, covering payment of charges from Big Island Tents.

The fourth and final receipt was not prepared until December 4, 2012, more than seven months after the event was held. This was to acknowledge Simonds’ payment of $1,500.98, via her personal check 7443, to cover the charges from Waimea Party Rentals and Jack’s Hawai`i, Inc.
In February of this year, in our appeal of NOAA’s earlier response to our request for records, we had asked specifically for: “copies of invoices or other documentation of costs associated with two evening receptions… including charter buses, invoices from caterers or other food and drink charges, and wait staff” and “records of income received for these two receptions from the attendees.”

According to Fredericks of Commerce’s Office of the General Counsel, with regard to the May 2, reception, “all responsive documents are being provided to you.”

When Environment Hawai`i called a Wespac staffer to inquire if, indeed, the poor guests had gone hungry that evening, we were told, “I’m not at liberty to talk about FOIA requests.”

For more on the CCC meeting, see articles in the June 2012 and May 2013 editions of Environment Hawai`i.

 

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