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Decision on HTA chief put on hold


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POSTED: Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has put off a decision on the employment status of its embattled chief executive for a second time since Gov. Linda Lingle called publicly for his resignation following allegations that he used his state laptop to forward racist, sexist and pornographic e-mails to friends.

HTA board members were slated to meet today to discuss CEO Rex Johnson's standing; however, they have postponed that action to Wednesday. The meeting, which will take place at 8:30 a.m. in Executive Board Room A at the Hawaii Convention Center, will be followed by an executive session.

The HTA and Johnson have been under fire since it was discovered in June that he forwarded pornographic e-mails from his government laptop. The board punished Johnson in August for his actions. At the time, the board was harshly criticized by some members of the community for taking nine days following a seven-hour executive session to make a decision.

"The HTA board and I reached resolution on this matter, and I regret that they have to deal with this situation again," said Johnson, who has repeatedly apologized for his actions.

The scandal reignited in September when e-mails containing racist and sexist jokes were recovered from Johnson's sent box. One such e-mail, sent in March, referred to Sen. Barack Obama as a "coon" and Sen. Hillary Clinton as a "beaver."

HTA Chairman Kelvin Bloom has said that the board was unaware of this content when it made the decision to reduce Johnson's pay to $200,000 from $240,000 and shorten his contract to one year from four years. However, Johnson said he believes that "the state has had access to the e-mails which were the subject of recent news articles and upon which I was disciplined."

Johnson has received widespread support from the visitor industry and from state legislators such as Sens. Donna Kim and Colleen Hanabusa, but Lingle and civic groups throughout the state have demanded that the HTA remove him from his post. The NAACP along with several other civil rights groups collected more than 300 signatures calling for Johnson's removal during a three-hour march through Waikiki on Saturday.

"If it was important to the board to get this matter resolved, they would step up to the plate," said Alphonso Braggs, president of the Hawaii branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "All of this could have been avoided if they were more diligent during the discovery phase. What on earth were they doing during that seven-hour executive session and for nine days after?"

Bloom said he repeatedly tried to schedule another meeting, and had sought permission for an emergency meeting, but was turned down by state Attorney General Mark Bennett.

"There is no question from my perspective and that of several other directors that this is a very important matter," he said. "However, we were one or two board members short of the seven voting members that we needed for a quorum."