Thursday, June 17, 1999

rip veto blocking
land claims

The bill killed by Cayetano
gave another year to review 2,000
homestead claims

By Pat Omandam


For the past seven years, Sam Yong of Waimanalo has set out to prove to a state panel he was wronged by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands when he wasn't awarded a homestead after 40 years of waiting.

So when the panel ruled in his favor two years ago, the 61-year-old felt all the work justifying his claim was worth it -- until he heard yesterday that Gov. Ben Cayetano vetoed a bill that would have extended the life of the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust Individual Claims Review Panel.

The action puts his and thousands of other Hawaiian claims in limbo as there will be no panel after Dec. 31 to review claims or seek payment from the Legislature for damages awarded.

"I will never trust the Hawaii government again," Yong said.

"They pass a law, supposedly to right the wrongs that have been done to us. Then, after we Hawaiians have endured enormous stress and money in proving our cases according to the due process of the law, the governor then kills the panel. It just doesn't make sense."

Word of the governor's veto spread quickly throughout the Hawaiian community yesterday, with hastily called news conferences by claimants, as well as by panel chairman Peter L. Trask.

Trask said he was extremely disappointed because the veto leaves more than 2,000 claims before the panel in limbo. The only recourse for beneficiaries now is to file suit in Circuit Court, he said.

Of the 4,327 claims originally filed, 47 percent remain before the panel, 13 percent have been awarded damages, and 40 percent were dismissed or closed.

As passed by the Legislature this spring, House Bill 1675 would have extended the life of the panel by one year, until Dec. 31, 2000. It also would have set up a claims compensation commission to look at different funding options to pay claimants.

The panel was created in 1991 and began hearing claims in 1993.

Cayetano is on vacation in California and returns Wednesday. But in his June 10 veto message, he said the bill doesn't expedite completion of all of the claims, and it will take more than a year to do so.

Moreover, the governor said the panel has continually "misapplied" what claims should be heard and the formula for damages. For example, pure "waiting list" claims -- filed by those who believe they've been on the waiting list too long -- were not part of the law that created the claims process, Cayetano said.

Finally, he blamed the Legislature for not correcting the problem this year. In 1997, lawmakers created a working group to resolve the formula for damages, but the group was ruled unconstitutional in July 1998.

The governor said passage of the bill would perpetuate the erroneous standards for another year. "This, in turn, will perpetuate the beneficiaries' misunderstanding that the panel's recommended awards are valid," Cayetano said. "This misunderstanding by the beneficiaries cannot be allowed to continue."

Trask blamed the attorney general's office for delaying the claims process over the years. He said the panel's interpretation of the law allows it to review all types of individual claims, including waiting list claims. "Moreover, we are very concerned that dismantling the claims process in mid-stream will intensify the distrust of state government that is already so pervasive in the Hawaiian community," Trask said.

Attorney Melissa Seu of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which represents 93 claimants, said that if Hawaiians file suit in Circuit Court, they will have to go through the entire claims process again.

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