Tuesday, December 4, 2001

Ag department
gambles on shrimp

The issue: The state has
approved a loan to a shrimp
farm that posts large losses.

Government loan programs often serve to aid struggling enterprises deserving of help because they may prove beneficial to the overall economy. However, financial risks must be meticulously assessed before such loans are made because the money being advanced comes from taxpayers.

It is troubling that the state Board of Agriculture has approved a $2.5 million loan to Ceatech, a shrimp-farming company that has posted continuing losses totaling $6.7 million since its founding in 1995. The loan could jeopardize the Department of Agriculture's entire $26 million lending program if the borrowers fail to repay.

In approving Ceatech's loan, the board overruled its own loan division director, Doreen Shishido, who in September rejected the company's application for $4.5 million, saying it had a record of piling on debt and probably could not pay the money back. The board ordinarily accepts Shishido's recommendations but, in an unusual move, announced it would reconsider Ceatech's request to the department's director, James J. Nakatani, curiously ordering a presentation prepared on the company's behalf.

The money will come from a $5 million loan fund approved by the Legislature aimed at helping agricultural businesses on Kauai. Ceatech had lobbied Kauai lawmakers for the bill, but legislators felt it would be improper to make low-interest loans available only to Ceatech when other enterprises also were struggling and passed a measure open to broader interests. When the money became available, sugar growers Gay & Robinson Inc. sought $4 million of the funds while Ceatech applied for $4.5 million. Shishido approved Gay & Robinson's request, but the company -- under pressure that it declined to specify other than to say it involved politics -- was advised to reduce its application to $1.8 million.

The department's loan division, which Shishido has directed for eight years, has remained relatively solvent with delinquency typically below 10 percent. The $2.5 million to Ceatech is one of the largest loans the department has ever made. The amount is significant enough that default could prove risky, not only to taxpayers but to the program itself, because interest collected on loans pays for administrative expenses. Further, a former loan executive for local banks, whom Nakatani asked to defend Ceatech's application, acknowledged that the company's assets do not have any current value for collateral if it fails to pay the loan. Moreover, the company's product is an expensive, higher-end shrimp for which the market remains uncertain and unpredictable.

Although Ceatech may represent necessary diversification Hawaii's agricultural interests, its track record makes it a gamble for scarce taxpayer dollars.

Thai chef should
be allowed to stay

The issue: Sen. Akaka has
introduced a bill to grant Chef Chai
permanent U.S. residence.

IMMIGRATION officials have taken a hard stand against continued U.S. residency for popular island chef Chai Chaowasaree. Senator Akaka has taken the initiative to avert a continued court battle -- and Chaowasaree's probable deportation to his native Thailand -- by introducing a private bill in Congress to grant him permanent residency.

Private bills are intended to make exceptions to the law for individuals because of special circumstances, most often in immigration cases. Chaowasaree, who initially sought residency through an allegedly sham marriage, has become a valued member of the community and should be allowed to remain.

Akaka wants the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to take "a hard second look" at Chaowasaree's case, according to a spokesman, but the intent is clear that he should be granted permanent residency. The INS accused Chaowasaree of entering into a fraudulent marriage with an American woman, and the case has been in the court for more than a decade.

Chaowasaree, owner of Chai's Island Bistro and Singha Thai Cuisine, returned to Thailand last year to visit his ailing father. The INS contended that his departure from the country amounted to abandonment of his appeal of a court ruling that he be deported. Chaowasaree maintains that the agency approved his trip.

Private bills once were commonplace but have declined in usage. Such a bill was contemplated last year in the controversial Florida case of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez before he was returned to Cuba. Publicity about such a case helps to overcome any appearance of impropriety; nobody is trying to pull a fast one.

Akaka hopes that the INS and Chaowasaree can negotiate a settlement while the private bill is pending, but that seems unlikely. "I don't know what there is to negotiate," says INS District Director Donald Radcliffe . It is difficult for the agency to back away from a position it insists is factually based and legally correct.

The Akaka bill will provide relief soon for Chaowasaree. The Senate Judiciary Committee's request to the Justice Department for a report on the case will automatically halt all court proceedings. Eventually Chaowasaree should receive justice by way of this unusual path.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

Richard Halloran, editorial page director, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, contributing editor 294-3533;

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