Hee denies link
between gifts and
UH nominees

State Sen. Clayton Hee, chairman of the Higher Education Committee, acknowledged to his colleagues yesterday that his campaign volunteers solicited donations from University of Hawaii officials, including two regent nominees who appeared before his panel this month.

But Hee denied that the committee's recommendations on the nominees were related to the solicitations.

"Any inference that the sale or lack thereof of a $25 donation in any way impacted this week's decisions by the Higher Education Committee regarding pending Board of Regent nominees is without merit and an insult to those committee members and their staffs," Hee said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Last week, Hee successfully urged his committee to advise against the nomination of John K. Kai and give support for the nomination of Ramon de la Pena. Both Kai and de la Pena are currently interim regents, and their nominations for permanent appointment must still go for a vote before the full Senate.

Kai said yesterday he received a block of tickets to Hee's fund-raiser a week before his first confirmation hearing.

"I was just dumbfounded. I couldn't believe they would do that," Kai said, adding that he threw out the tickets.

"I am new to this, but I decided I would play it aboveboard and I would not make a contribution to just potentially buy my seat," Kai said.

De la Pena was also solicited and bought some of the $25 tickets, Kai said. De la Pena was not available for comment.

"I asked Mr. de la Pena about it, and he said he gave his contributions to Amy Agbayani," Kai said. Agbayani is director of the UH Department of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity and also policy adviser to Hee.

Agbayani, a former Hawaii Democratic Party national committeewoman and chairwoman of the Judicial Selection Commission, said yesterday that she had sent out tickets from her home and did not use Senate postage to pay for the mailings.

"I sent them to colleagues at the university," she said.

In his Senate speech, Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe) apologized and said he had nothing to do with the solicitations.

"It should not have happened. I take and accept full responsibility for the activities performed on my behalf by my volunteers," Hee said. "They have been admonished for this behavior, and it will not happen again."

Any money collected from regent nominees will be returned, Hee said.

Agbayani said she is on loan to Hee's office from UH and divides her time between working for Hee and the university.

"I assist the senator with information about the university," she said.

Regent Kitty Lagareta said she had not received a fund-raising solicitation from Hee, but called the effort "appalling."

Lagareta, vice chairwoman of the board, said she was disturbed because while Agbayani had been distributing fund-raising tickets to UH regents and collecting money for Hee's campaign, she was also calling to tell Lagareta that Kai's nomination was in trouble.

"On April 12 (Agbayani) called me to tell me than there was trouble with both the de la Pena and Kai appointments," Lagareta said.

"There seems to be a feeling that it is like strong-arming. It is ugly," said Lagareta, who is also a campaign worker for Gov. Linda Lingle.

Sen. Fred Hemmings, Senate GOP leader, said Hee's apology and the actions of his campaign committee "looks like quid pro quo."

"There is too much connection between specific actions and fund raising. When something is directly tied to a specific event, there appears to be a conflict," Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo) said.

"Obviously, the chairman knew it was wrong, and he had to apologize for it," Hemmings said.

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