the fixers
Interview

Donna Wong

Wong Donna Wong is a Kailua neighborhood board member who happened to be on an organized hike with Gene Lum when a group of horsemen stole nearby rancher Leonard Wong's cattle and slaughtered his prize bull. Wong and others also filed a 1989 Federal Elections Commission complaint alleging illegal foreign contributions to local politicians. Five years later, FEC investigators found more than 100 violations of federal campaign law.

Gene and Nora Lum | Japanese investment | farmers | foreign contributions


Q: What are the purposes of neighborhood boards here on the island?

Wong: To look at land issues, development, how things are changing, what is needed in the community, what is going on, what is good and what is bad.

Q: So it tends to look at things such as zoning restrictions. If somebody wants to build a hotel on a farm community or a business in a residential area, you would all consider it and advise on the issue.

Wong: Absolutely, yes.

Q: Did the sort of cases you were considering remain constant? Or did they vary?

Wong: Well, it depends...Not very many big issues came up in our small town of Kailua, except when a golf course was proposed in a very pristine valley, and then that was a shock.

...[We] learned that a foreign Japanese entity...was looking at purchasing over 1,000 acres and putting in two golf courses. And that was a shock: Where'd the golf course come from? Why a golf course in Kailua, and just basically what is going on? And we went from there to try and find out what was happening.

Q: So the sudden proposed golf course is a big deal. It would be something out of the ordinary.

Wong: Yes.

Q: It's not land that was earmarked for golf course development.

Wong: No, it was agricultural land. And until there was a change of the law in 1986, golf courses had to go through a permitting system. And then the law was changed and golf courses were automatically permitted on agricultural land, and then we came smack up against that, like what do we do now?

Q: So the laws had, at one time, specifically prohibited the use of this land for recreational development?

Wong: It didn't prohibit it. There was a process that one had to go through to get the use of the land for a golf course, and that process was well understood. The change in the state law just erased that process. And now if you owned agricultural land, you could build a golf course...

Q: Why was the law changed?

Wong: Well, what we've come to learn now is to smooth the way for this Royal Hawaiian [Country Club] golf course in Kailua.

Q: So the Royal Hawaiian interests were locally powerful and prominent Hawaiians who were well enough connected to get the law changed?

Wong: Well, they were ethnic Hawaiians....[Some lived] in Hawaii, some acted as consultants, some acted as attorneys for foreign investment money.

Q: What was at stake?

Wong: What was at stake is there happened to be farmers on this...land. ...150 acres for each golf course, and there were two that were being proposed, and two that have permits. So what happens to these farmers? ...

Q: And what had the new landowner and the developers proposed be done with these farmers?

Wong: ...Well, there was a conditional use permit that said the farmers had first right of refusal for relocation. And the neighborhood board and others worked real hard to get that in so that there would be a safety net for the farmers.

Q: So that at least if they're going to be moved, and their land is going to be made into a golf course, they would have someplace else to live and presumably, to farm.

Wong: Right. So that provision was the first condition in this conditional use permit, and so we felt assured that they were sort of taken care of until someone came up to me personally and said, "Donna, we got an eviction notice. Don't we have any rights?" And so I proceeded to tell them, what about the conditional use permit? Well, neither the landowner nor the state had told them about this permit or about any of their rights. They just went in with this eviction notice and said, "You've got to get out of here."

Q: And were they evicted?

Wong: ...Thankfully, the community stepped in and raised the issue, and they would have been evicted if lawsuits had not been filed to stay off an eviction. Eventually, after four or five years they were evicted.

Q: So you all were able at least to hold up the eviction, and therefore hold up the development of this golf course for a few years. Is it at this point that Gene and Nora Lum enter the deal as fixers for the people who have tens of millions of dollars at stake in the project?

Wong: ...They enter at the beginning. We're all in the community trying to figure out what's going on -- do we stop this golf course, if so how can we stop it, what are our options as a community, what are the options of the farmers? There is an Old Government Road that runs through the valley, and Gene was brought in at this time. This is one of my first contacts with him, on a hike that was put together by the director of the [state] Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). It was exchanging this Old Government Road for this insufficient trail, but he was trying to convince everyone that this was a good deal.

Q: And he represents himself how, as being a representative of this development company?

Wong: Oh, he did, yes. I've got a letter, part of his testimony before the Department of Land and Natural Resources where he was telling them how what a great neighbor his client is, and that money is no object. But of course the community has no idea. Who is this new Yasuo Yasuda? Who is this guy? He's coming from offshore. He's coming from Japan. What does he want? What's he going to do?

Q: Gene Lum and his wife, Nora, are either of them necessarily an established figure of trust in the community? Are they well-known?

Wong: No, not at all. We didn't know their names, until you'd just see a letter from them or hear them testify, and then we learned that Gene was the attorney. And we had heard that it was Nora who, as a real estate agent, brokered the sale.

Q: Do you think the Lums were instrumental at all in the political maneuvering that was necessary to changing the law?

Wong: Sure. It was surprising to see Gene representing the developer at the hike...as an attorney, and then to see him show up at the city council working for the city council chair of the planning committee.

Q: What was different about this? Was it a departure from Hawaiian business as usual?

Wong: Probably not....[Everybody] says it's corruption and it's really bad....

Q: Where did the Lums fit into the "grease" game?

Wong: ...They came right at the beginning of the Japanese money boom. And so that just started a whole snowball of money and all that the money bought, whether it was permits or anything else like that. Things were done underhandedly before then, it was just in a different way, and just with different money and some different players.

Q: So you had this sudden influx of money, and it was very enticing, I suppose, to players at all levels on the local scene. What's the effect of that? What kind of a Hawaii does that create?

Wong: Well, it was scary. It was really scary. The planning and zoning committee of the Kailua neighborhood board called a public meeting to find out, "Wow, we read that the Japanese nationals are buying all of our businesses. They're buying land. What is going on?" So we called this public meeting, and...it was over 200 people. They loaded up the cafeteria. And we put on scrolls how many companies had been bought and how much land had been bought by Japanese nationals. And everybody...wanted information: What is going on?

Q: And was it a significant level of Japanese involvement?

Wong: Absolutely. They bought our bread company, they bought our milk company. All of a sudden, that's leaving local hands. And I don't know how it is in the mainland states, but Hawaii is so insulated, local means a lot. At least it used to mean a lot. It could be trusted. And now you had these real foreign entities come in.

Q: Characterize the environment during this period.

Wong: Well again, the only words that come to my mind are that it is scary. You don't know how much money is coming in, who's brokering the deals, what deals they're brokering, what's going to happen next. You know about the Japanese national who rides around in the limo with a briefcase full of cash and goes up and offers to buy somebody's house [that] isn't for sale. They sell it, and then they turn around and rent the house back. But they've made a lot of money, because this is just unheard of.

Q: You were able to stop this development and the property evictions for awhile, but at the end of the day the golf course developers from Japan, with the help of their friends, the Lums, prevailed. What happened to the farmers?

Wong: They were evicted, and it wasn't an easy eviction.

Q: How so?

Wong: They were, well, sort of put on notice that any minute now they're going to come in and they're just going to bulldoze down their homes....[They] sort of had a 24-hour watch to...start up a phone tree to call and say, okay, they're coming. And then one day they just did.

...[You] would have thought it was a war zone. There was marshals, there were sheriffs, there were police. Helicopters. You know, there were elderly people, working class people, kids...It was terrible. They just went in and packed up all their belongings and moving trucks, held everybody else at bay, and then went in and just bulldozed their houses.

Q: Were they armed?

Wong: Oh yeah, lots of guns.

Q: So you have this small armed posse coming in to forcefully remove people from the places they've lived and made their living.

Wong: Yeah, for no reason. And it's a foreign entity that's been aided by our local Hawaiian attorneys, consultants, politicians. These are dispensable people. These are small people....They could go.

Q: So you have these middle men, these enablers, these fixers,....People such as the Lums, who helped to grease the way, both politically and otherwise. Are they ever held accountable?

Wong: ...We tried. We tried going after the mayor, we tried the governor, we tried the DNLR,...and we were ignored. The powers to be to get this golf course through were just way too much for just small people.

Q: And at the end of the day it came down to money.

Wong: Yeah. There was a lot of money to be made.

Q: Do you suppose the Lums knew about the evictions?

Wong: They weren't directly involved at that time, but they set everything in motion by all the deals that they were making to grease all the permits. So they were just as much involved as anybody else....

Q: Is this when the [Wongs'] bull was butchered?

Wong: That was before the eviction, but the Lums were definitely involved

...That was a definite indication: "You're out of here." ...Gene was on the hike that day. I was hiking right behind him, so he had to be there. Shots were fired, pantiolos were riding on this little trail. I said, "What are these guys doing on this trail? We're hiking." "Oh, they're here to protect you from the cattle."

Q: Did you recognize any of these pantiolos?

Wong: No.

Q: I assume it's not the usual thing one runs into on a nature hike.

Wong: No, not at all. And to hear gun shots, no. But [afterwards], we learned that's when they were stealing the [Wongs'] cattle and shot the bull.

Q: And did the people who had been on this property have any sort of long-standing claim on the land?

Wong: ...They had leases, and they had either paper or verbal agreements to stay on the land. They were also told by the golf course developers, "If you agree with us, and if you support us on the golf course, you can stay on the land."

Q: It turned out they may not have been completely sincere.

Wong: ...A couple of the farmers...raised pigs, [which is a lucrative business]....So the golf course representatives went to these farmers and said, "If you get rid of your pigs, we'll let you stay on the land." So, okay, they got rid of their pigs, and got an eviction notice.

Q: Which was pretty much the story across the board. Those who agreed and cooperated and tried to accommodate were, in fact, ultimately not satisfied. The people who signed the petition ultimately felt double-crossed, didn't they?

Wong: Yeah, because it didn't matter what you did....You were going to be out of there. They didn't want you there. As we learned later through documents, this is where they had planned to put the condos. So of course these people can't be there, because condos are going to overlook the golf course.

Q: It wasn't just foreigners coming in here and just taking people, booting people off their land, was it? They were very much aided and abetted by locals.

Wong: Oh yeah, absolutely. All the middle men, for whatever. It started off with Gene as the first attorney. It started off with Nora, brokering the land deal. And then started off as Gene appearing before the DNLR and then working for the city council. Sure, and the end result was, "Get these people off and build a golf course at all costs."

Q: When I say "locals," that is as distinct from "Hawaiians," right?

Wong: ...When Hawaiian is mentioned, it's in the context of the nationality. So if you lived in California, you're Californian. If you've lived in Hawaii you're not a Hawaiian, unless you are of Hawaiian blood. So if you live here you could be a local.

Q: So what were the Lums?

Wong: They were local.

Q: As opposed to Hawaiian.

Wong: Right. They were not Hawaiian blood....

Q: Was there any environmental issue at stake?

Wong: Oh, there's a lot of environmental issues at stake. This watershed, 11.5 miles, is the main water source for Kawainui Marsh, which is the largest freshwater marsh in this state. The golf course came in [and] they were allowed to channelize the streams,... so it cut down on this water source to this significant marsh. Bulldozing, of course, caused a lot of runoff, which eventually ends up in this marsh, as do the pesticides and the herbicides and the fertilizers and all the chemicals that are used on a golf course.

Q: And you have no state environmental protection agency?

Wong: Well, we do. We have those departments, and we have very good environmental and land use laws, but just no one ever enforces them. Especially if you want your project to go through, and you know who to see and how to do it. The public is just impotent. They can't go anywhere or do anything.

Q: You can always get things fixed.

Wong: Right....We have a state Water Commission, and the golf course was fined the largest fine ever given anyone for a violation. So we've had very small wins. It didn't solve anything. It just said that what they had built was improper, and they didn't have a permit to do it.

Q: And how did the people who built this golf course fare?

Wong: Well, I don't know how they fared individually, but the golf course went bankrupt....

Q: And what happened to the people who were moved off their land?

Wong: ...They had to go picket in front of the governor's house to get their belongings out of storage....and then they just scattered. Some have gone to the Philippines, some have moved to other islands, and they just haven't done well. And they had a very close community. It was a rural community in an urban setting.

Q: It just ceased to exist.

Wong: ...It was bulldozed out of existence.

Q: And the Lums?

Wong: Oh, they went on to what they consider was greener pastures when they went to the Big Island with [another] golf course. But by then the community and the public and the citizens were getting a little smarter, and so we knew to look for foreign contributions. [The] community on the Big Island started doing that and nabbed them right away for giving contributions...in excess of what you can give [under state and federal campaign laws.]

Q: I get the impression that the favored procedure was to channel money from foreign investors through people like the Lums, who would pass it on to local politicians and facilitate whatever needed to be done.

Wong: Absolutely.[We wondered,] What's happening? So we said, "Well, we'll look at contributions and see if they're over the $2000 limit." Well, then we realized we're dealing with Japanese nationals. Well, let's look and see, are they giving contributions? And if so, are they over the limit? Now we weren't even thinking about on the federal level that it's illegal...I don't even know how we discovered that. I never saw anything like it....

Q: It was money from the foreign nationals going to whom?

Wong: It went to the mayor, to the governor, to senators, representatives.

Q: They covered the board.

Wong: They covered them all, right.

Q: And it worked.

Wong: Yeah, it worked for a long time. Until finally, ...myself, Vicky Creed and Tony Locricchio filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission.

Q: So I asked you how the people fared, and they didn't fare very well. I asked you how the golf course fared, and it lost a lot of money. I asked you how the Lums fared, and they ultimately left Hawaii.

Wong: ...I think it got really hot for them on the Big Island. They were written up a lot with their soliciting campaign contributions for the mayor of the Big Island, so I think it got really hot, and they either wanted to move on or were forced to move on...

Moving to California for Asian-Americans was a good idea. Asians are "in" now. They represent ...a growing population in other states, populations that haven't been taxed, and so they can just move on to greener pastures. And the Lums knew how to do it. This was their playground....

Q: That Gene and Nora Lum would come to develop a relationship and ultimately a political union, with the head of the Democratic party, and move to Washington, and run in those circles and meet the President of the United States and attend his inaugural and so on. Does that come as a surprise?

Wong: No, it doesn't come as a surprise to me. Nora sought opportunities, and she knew opportunities when she saw them. And this is the era of the Asians....

Q: Sort of exploiting the moment.

Wong: Sure. Absolutely. It's there, it was ripe. Somebody had to take it. They did!

[END]

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