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Legislature awards grant to group tied to lawmaker

May 2, 2014 - 12:05am

HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers this week approved a $100,000 grant to a nonprofit organization controlled by state Rep. Rida Cabanilla, who didn’t publicly disclose her close ties to the Ewa Historical Society or ask House leaders whether she had a potential conflict before the vote.

Cabanilla’s son is listed as the nonprofit’s vice president in the grant application and two of her aides are listed among the four-member board of directors, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Thursday.

Cabanilla, who is the House majority floor leader, said she put their names on the application because she couldn’t find enough community volunteers.

“I put in the (grant) request. And I did not hide anything. My name is on the application,” said Cabanilla, a Democrat who represents Ewa Beach and West Loch Estates.

The state’s conflict-of-interest law generally does not apply to lawmakers, but internal House and Senate rules urge lawmakers to disclose potential conflicts.

The grant, approved Tuesday, is for repair and upkeep of Ewa Plantation Cemetery, where many plantation workers are buried.

The west Oahu cemetery was closed to burials in 1976 and volunteers maintain the property. The grant request said money was needed for groundskeepers, landscapers and equipment such as lawn mowers.

Cabanilla asked Sen. Will Espero, a Democrat who represents Ewa Beach and Iroquois Point, to help get the grant through the Senate, which he did without knowing Cabanilla was behind the nonprofit.

Espero said funding for cemetery maintenance is badly needed. Many people in the district believe the cemetery should be properly cared for, he said. He said he didn’t know who the principals and directors of the Ewa Historical Society were.

Competition among nonprofits and other community groups for grants is often fierce. This year, lawmakers received more than 230 applications for $147 million worth of grants, yet approved only 55 grants for $10 million because of budget constraints.

“This is a situation where a representative really wanted to help her community. And she exhausted all options and finally took matters into her own hands,” House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said.

Saiki said there could have been better disclosure and he believes Cabanilla will rectify the situation by removing herself from the historical society.

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