Hawaii’s new assistant economics chief has a strong business partner in the Senate
The Hawaii State Ethics Committee said there was no conflict of interest, although Dane Wicker should take no action involving tea.
A powerful senator’s business partner is on course to be confirmed as deputy director of the Hawaii Economic Development Agency.
Dane Wicker, a former chief of staff to Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and co-owner of Kilani Brew with the senator, drove through a Senate committee hearing on his nomination on Tuesday.
The same may not be true for his boss Chris Sadayasu, who is expected to have a much tougher confirmation hearing on Thursday.
Governor Josh Green believes that opposition to Sadayasu’s nomination has more to do with personal politics than actual disagreements over politics or qualifications.
“It’s hard for us to do our job when old policies get in the way of new plans,” Green said in a recent interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board.
Senate President Ron Kouchi defended the process, saying it is the Senate’s duty to review cabinet candidates.
“I was troubled when the governor said we should just give him a chance and get everyone he nominates confirmed just because,” Kouchi said in a speech Tuesday.
A small handful of the governor’s cabinet members had completed their first committee hearings on Tuesday. They have yet to be approved by the full 25-member Senate.
Starting a tea business
Wicker’s company, Wicker Enterprises, is listed as a registered agent for Kilani Brew, the tea company he owns with Dela Cruz and Todd Tashima, whose pay records show he is an employee of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources. Kilani Brew specializing in Mamaki tea was organized in 2018.
Wicker’s financial disclosure shows he earned between $10,000 and $25,000 from Wicker Enterprises, including rental income. The company is described as a holding company in the disclosure statement.
Dela Cruz began reporting ownership interests in Kilani Brew in 2020, although he has not reported revenue from the company since. When asked about the tea deal and whether it poses a conflict if the Senate has to vote, Dela Cruz said he doesn’t make “ethical decisions.”
Senate conflicts of interest rules apply to legislation in which a senator has a “direct financial interest.” The Rules make no provision for nominees before the Senate. The determination of whether a vote constitutes a conflict of interest rests with the Senate President in the case of a senator or the Speaker of the House of Representatives in the case of a representative.
Dela Cruz, who represents Wahiawa and is a strong advocate for agriculture, said the company is a small startup and neither partner is currently earning an income. Kilani Brew owns a 1 hectare property in Kunia where Mamaki Tea is grown.
“We did it because we wanted to lead by example, to show that we could do it and make products with added value,” said Dela Cruz.
The Ministry of Economy, Economic Development and Tourism is responsible for guiding the state out of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic and guiding the future of tourism in the islands.
Recently, lawmakers added the rehabilitation of Aloha Stadium and management of former plantation lands to DBEDT’s list of tasks. Many of Green’s affordable housing initiatives and other programs are channeled through the agency.
The agricultural sector is one area where DBEDT can help to strengthen. Organizations with an interest in agriculture, such as the Hawaii Farmers Bureau and the Ulupono Initiative, testified Tuesday in support of Wicker’s nomination.
Wicker said he took advice from the state ethics committee regarding his role as DBEDT’s deputy and co-owner of the tea company. He was told that the deal posed no conflict of interest, including dealing with farming, as long as he didn’t take any action that could affect tea in particular. The ethics committee also found no conflicts with his business relationship with Dela Cruz, he said.
Ethics Committee director Robert Harris confirmed Wicker’s report on the council.
However, Wicker said the deal created a conflict while he worked in Dela Cruz’s office. The state ethics law prohibits legislators and employees from having business obligations. Wicker said he only found out after he left the Senate to take a job with the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permits.
“Before I could pull out and get away from it, I went into town and the conflict was over,” Wicker said.
He described his role in the business as keeping accounts and tending to the tea plants a few times a month on the weekends. Wicker said he worked on a farm as a child and is pursuing a master’s degree in planning from the University of Hawaii to keep career opportunities open after his tenure at DBEDT expires, which is currently December 2026, barring reappointment.
Former state labor director Scott Murakami described Wicker as “very intelligent and quick to grasp complex issues.” Murakami cited Wicker’s work in supporting the state’s unemployment system, which has been overwhelmed during the pandemic.
Wicker said he has a close working relationship with Sadayasu and the pair plan to advance a strategic plan for DBEDT to target different sectors of the economy. Wicker said Sadayasu has taken the lead on housing initiatives, the state’s major tourism contract, Aloha Stadium and a new proposed hydrogen hub. Wicker has found other areas to fit, including supporting the various program managers within DBEDT and working to develop the agency’s strategic plan.
A bumpy start
DBEDT’s leadership had a rough initial hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee earlier this year. The appearances of the state directors before the budget committee at this session were a kind of litmus test for new cabinet appointments.
Senators cited Ikaika Anderson’s poor performance before the Treasury Committee as one reason for voting against his nomination to head the State Department of Hawaiian Home Lands this year.
Sen. Donna Kim asked Wicker, who served several years on the committee under Dela Cruz, how he approached this first hearing.
“I think I expected a lot more,” Kim said Tuesday. “If your skills have not been used, I have to wonder how much of your experience is being used as a deputy.”
Wicker, who was appointed assistant director in December, said adapting to administration has been a challenge.
Dela Cruz said he hasn’t had much dealings with Sadayasu since he was appointed head of DBEDT. But he also said that during the hours-long hearing, it appeared the department was struggling.
“They were at the bottom end of the readiness level,” he said in an interview.
Whether that spells trouble for Sadayasu on Thursday and the coming weeks of this session remains to be seen.
Sen. Glenn Wakai, the vice chair of the committee overseeing Sadayasu’s confirmation, has previously clashed with the leadership of DBEDT.
Wakai launched a strong campaign against former DBEDT director Mike McCartney’s nomination in 2019. McCartney swept the Senate 15-10.
Tensions spilled over into 2020, when McCartney twice refused to appear before the Senate in the midst of the pandemic, citing allegations of bullying by senators.
Sadayasu was the former tourism brand manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority between 2016 and 2021. This overlaps with a period when Wakai allegedly bullied HTA employees after his wife was forced to resign from the agency, according to a 2019 state investigation. Wakai denied harassing or bullying anyone.
He declined to comment on the story, instead referring inquiries to Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Chair Lynn DeCoite.
DeCoite’s office said it declined to comment before Thursday’s hearing.
Kouchi spoke generally about the appointment of the cabinet to the Senate and encouraged lawmakers to take their duties seriously. He pointed to Agriculture Director Sharon Hurd, who initially struggled through budget hearings but eventually “rose up to the challenge.” Hurd released a pre-vote on Monday.
“We will continue to go through the process fairly, and for those who can articulate the vision and give us confidence that they will bring out the best product for the people of Hawaii, we will continue to advance these candidates.” ‘ Kouchi said.