HTA facing more e-mail controversy
Racist and sexist missives prompt calls to oust the state’s top tourism executive
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With evidence surfacing that Hawaii Tourism Authority Chief Executive Rex Johnson also forwarded racial and sexist e-mails, Gov. Linda Lingle and the NAACP are calling for his immediate resignation or firing.
"I understand that my actions were a huge error in judgment."
Hawaii Tourism Authority chief
The HTA, the agency that makes all of the spending decisions for the state visitor industry, is now coming under fire for a decision it made last month to allow its embattled top executive to keep his job though he forwarded pornographic e-mail to friends from his state computer.
HTA Chairman Kelvin Bloom, who is traveling on the West Coast and will not return until Monday, said the board will meet as soon as possible to discuss whether further action is warranted.
The board was unaware of the other e-mails when it considered Johnson's employment.
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Gov. Linda Lingle and the NAACP have called for the immediate resignation or firing of the state's top tourism executive in light of new information that along with pornography, he forwarded racist and sexist jokes that denigrated Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among others.
And the Hawaii Tourism Authority is planning an emergency response meeting to address these new allegations that have surfaced regarding its embattled chief executive, Rex Johnson.
These actions are in response to the release earlier this week of more than 600 e-mails sent by Johnson from Feb. 29 to April 29 as part of an open-records request from the media. Although the state had expunged the pornographic e-mails that nearly cost Johnson his job in August, some of the content in the newest batch of e-mails has ignited further controversy.
"It's just clear that Rex Johnson has to do the right thing for the people of Hawaii, for Hawaii's future, and resign his position immediately," Lingle said yesterday during a press conference at her office. "If he fails to do so, the board needs to remove him immediately."
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said it will begin protesting if Johnson does not resign or get fired.
"Now, how is it that instead of celebrating the accomplishments of minorities in America as far as women and African-Americans, he has denigrated them?" said NAACP President Alphonso Braggs. "It's indicative of the behaviors of Southern whites during the Civil War era."
The HTA will reconvene as soon as possible to discuss the latest batch of e-mails, said Chairman Kelvin Bloom, who is currently on the West Coast and will not return until Monday.
In August, after reviewing reports from state Auditor Marian Higa and from the Hawaii attorney general's office, the board allowed Johnson to keep his job despite the fact that by his own admission he had used a state laptop to e-mail pornography to friends. The board, which held an infamous seven-hour, closed-door meeting to discuss the earlier allegations, agonized for about nine days before ultimately deciding to reprimand Johnson, cut the length of his employment contract to a year and reduce his annual salary to $200,000 from $240,000.
"As I've said before, I understand that my actions were a huge error in judgment and will never happen again," Johnson said. "If the content of these forwarded e-mails have offended anyone, this was not my intention and I sincerely apologize."
Johnson said that the board has reviewed this matter and taken action and that it is time for everyone to put their focus back on the state's visitor industry. But Bloom said that the board made its decision without taking into account the latest e-mails that have surfaced.
"When they (the attorney general's office and Higa) provided their reports, there was no information concerning racist or sexist e-mails," Bloom said. "We weren't aware of this."
Bloom said as part of their due diligence, the HTA asked the attorney general's office to review the content of the pornographic e-mails that had been flagged by Higa.
"The (HTA) asked us to do one thing, and that's what we did," said state Attorney General Mark Bennett. "We don't read the e-mails of state employees routinely."
Bloom said the HTA asked the state attorney's office to review a group of pornographic e-mails that had been flagged by Higa, who said that she had happened upon them by chance as part of an unrelated DBEDT audit.
Higa, who declined to comment on whether she was aware of the racial and sexual content contained in the latest batch of e-mails, said that she brought the pornographic e-mails to the HTA's attention because of their level of seriousness.
While public support for Johnson throughout the ordeal had been mixed, he garnered overwhelming support from members of the state's visitor industry. Several state legislators also had rallied to his cause, although Lingle has been consistent in her criticism of his actions.
Now Lingle has said that there is really nothing left to discuss.
"This is not a person of the kind of character we want to lead the agency that's responsible for promoting our state's most important industry," she said.
While many of the newest e-mails, which were released as part of an open-records request by the media, contained official business content, some contained racial slurs against African-Americans, Hispanics and Muslims. Others included sexual content, potty jokes or bizarre video images, such as the one sent on March 25 that showed a Japanese game-show participant peeling a banana with his butt cheeks.
An e-mail sent by Johnson from his state computer on March 3 was disguised as an alert from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warning trappers that a "coon" and a "beaver" were trying to get into the White House.
Still another video, which Johnson forwarded to a group of friends from his state computer on March 22, glorified the antics of a Caucasian man who dupes undocumented Hispanic workers into taking a trip to the nearest immigration office. At the conclusion of the video, the words "Amazing Racist" pop up.
Lingle, who referred several times to the e-mails that Johnson forwarded as disgusting, said that this kind of material goes against what Hawaii represents.
Johnson's e-mails are damaging to the state's visitor industry, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels.
"After the story broke, our biggest client contacted me," Vieira said. "It's just not what Hawaii's visitor industry needs, especially right now when we are facing so many challenges."