Thursday, April 17, 2008

Audit: Superferry drove state actions

Audit: Superferry drove state actions

Lingle administration criticized for bypassing environmental review

PDF: Superferry state report

The state may have compromised its environmental policy because of pressure from Hawaii Superferry executives who were worried about financing for the interisland ferry project, the state auditor has concluded.

The auditor found that an internal June 2005 deadline imposed by Superferry executives "drove the process" and pushed the state Department of Transportation to bypass an environmental review. The deadline, according to the auditor, was tied to Superferry's agreement with Austal USA to secure financing to pay the Mobile, Ala.-based shipbuilder to construct two high-speed ferries.

The federal Maritime Administration, which approved a $140 million loan guarantee for ferry construction, wanted confirmation that no environmental assessment of harbor improvements would be required because of the risk that environmental concerns could jeopardize port access. But Maritime Administration officials told the auditor they did not set the June 2005 deadline as a condition of the loan guarantee.

"In the end, the state may have compromised its environmental policy in favor of a private company's internal deadline," state auditor Marion Higa concluded. "It remains to be seen whether these decisions will cost the state more than its environmental policy."

The performance audit was required by state lawmakers as part of a law passed in special session last fall that allowed Superferry to resume operations while the state conducts an environmental impact statement. Legal challenges and public protests had halted ferry service after the state Supreme Court ruled in August that the state's decision to exempt $40 million in state harbor improvements from environmental review was in error.

The auditor's main finding was that the June 2005 deadline was not imposed by the federal government, but related to an agreement between Superferry and Austal. The audit questions whether the state did "sufficient due diligence to verify whether the deadline was valid for the reasons Hawaii Superferry Inc. claimed."

John Garibaldi, Superferry's chief executive officer, said yesterday that Superferry has consistently portrayed the June 2005 deadline as necessary for both federal and private equity financing. He described the agreements with the Maritime Administration, Austal USA and primary investors J.F. Lehman & Co. as interrelated.

"They were all dependent upon each other. No one stood on its own," Garibaldi said. "I think that's what we tried to express to people."

Garibaldi declined to comment on other findings in the audit because he had not yet seen a copy.

similar accounts

The auditor's descriptions of the chain of events that led the state to exempt the project from environmental review in February 2005 are similar to reports in The Advertiser in September and January.

The auditor and the newspaper received many of the same documents, which were screened by the Lingle administration for attorney-client privilege and executive privilege before being released. The administration is preparing a privilege log for the auditor and the newspaper to describe the documents that have been withheld. The Advertiser requested the documents under the state's open-records law.

Most significantly, the auditor — like The Advertiser — emphasized a late December 2004 meeting at the governor's office that included the governor's then-chief of staff Bob Awana, department officials, and Superferry executives.

Staff in the department's harbors division had wanted to require a statewide environmental assessment of the project and to get Superferry to install a stern ramp on the vessel to give it more flexibility at Kahului Harbor on Maui. But Superferry executives, according an account by a department staffer, told the state that anything but an exemption was a deal-breaker and that they would not install any ramps.

"Decisions made: We need to pursue EXEMPTION; and HSF will not provide any ramps on vessel," one department staffer told colleagues afterward in an e-mail.

The auditor concluded that department e-mails showed a decision was made at this meeting, although who made the decision is not revealed.

"Current and former department officials and employees who worked on the ferry project were either unable to recall who made the decision at that meeting or chose to invoke executive privilege when asked who directed the team," the auditor found.

The department, in its written response to the audit, rejected any inference that a decision was made at the governor's office directing the department to pursue an exemption. The auditor countered that the department's e-mails about the meeting "are self-explanatory."

"Ultimately, a decision involving the governor's office was made that directed the 'ferry project team' to pursue scenarios that would exempt the ferry harbor work from environmental review," the auditor found.

Fukunaga's decision

Awana, who resigned last year, told The Advertiser in January that he had no role in the decision. Barry Fukunaga, who was then the department's deputy director of harbors and is now Gov. Linda Lingle's chief of staff, has said he made the decision in consultation with his construction and engineering staff and then-department director Rod Haraga. The department also consulted with the state Office of Environmental Quality Control and county planning agencies.

Fukunaga told The Advertiser in writing last year that he did not discuss his deliberations or his eventual decision with Lingle, Awana or state Attorney General Mark Bennett.

The audit is also similar to The Advertiser's reporting last September on the Maritime Administration's loan guarantee for Superferry. Maritime Administration officials told the auditor that loan guarantees are typically exempt from environmental review because they just provide financing for ship construction. The vessels typically use port facilities already in place.

Maritime Administration officials told the auditor that harbor improvements for Superferry could have triggered an environmental assessment that could have limited ferry access to ports. So the Maritime Administration added a condition that Superferry provide confirmation that no environmental assessment was required.

"MARAD's position was that it was not willing to finance the construction of any vessel that might be unable to operate because it has no port," the auditor found.

The audit recommends that the Legislature empower a state agency to enforce environmental review laws and require agencies to update exemption lists every five years. The auditor found that the public has little involvement in the exemption process other than the right to file a lawsuit to challenge an exemption.

Higa had complained to lawmakers that she missed a March deadline for a preliminary draft of the audit because of significant delays in obtaining documents from the Lingle administration. Higa repeated those complaints in the audit and said her staff would be preparing a second phase of the audit for a later report.

Higa described the Lingle administration's cooperation as "slow and incomplete, at best." The department called that description "wholly untrue" and said any delays were based on requests by Higa that the attorney general found were "unreasonably broad in scope."

The department chose not to comment on many of Higa's conclusions. Mike Formby, the department's deputy director of harbors, said last night that the administration's wants the opportunity to review the second phase of the audit.

"I think what we wanted to do was reserve the right to see the full report, because it's really risky to look at half the report and respond knowing that they're out there still doing field investigation, interviews, reviewing documents," Formby said. "And basically, they look at the response you gave, and they go out and look for a way to rebut your response."