Tuesday | December 12, 2017
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UH-Hilo dorm project under fire for allegations of waste

The University of Hawaii at Hilo’s long-sought-after student housing complex, which is currently under construction and scheduled to be completed in August, is falling under intense scrutiny.

On Thursday, the state Attorney General’s office announced it would launch an investigation after an engineer that has a long history of doing business with the UH system claimed the project’s overseer had potentially wasted millions in taxpayer dollars. The university said the results of that investigation would be reported to the UH Board of Regents.

In a phone call Friday morning, UH-Hilo university relations director Jerry Chang said he could not discuss the allegations, nor the investigation. He referred all questions to UH system spokeswoman Lynne Waters, who responded to a call via email.

“(T)he university cannot disclose information or answer detailed questions about this topic until the Attorney General’s investigation is complete,” Waters wrote.

Chancellor Donald Straney sent word that he, too, could not discuss the ongoing investigation.

Chang did say, however, that the construction project is continuing on schedule, and UH-Hilo administrators have no input on the construction process, nor the investigation.

Dennis Mitsunaga, president and owner of Mitsunaga & Associates Inc., the project’s plan and design contractor, criticized Brian Minaai, the UH director of the Office of Capital Improvement, in testimony presented Feb. 14 before the state Senate Committee on Higher Education. The committee was considering a bill that would transfer the administration of UH construction projects from Minaai’s office to the Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services.

“(W)orking with Minaai on the housing project “has been a nightmare,” Mitsunaga said. “In the process of giving us a difficult time, Brian gave away millions of dollars on this project.”

Mitsunaga said that Minaai doled out contracts for the project to friends.

“With the exception of (Mitsunaga & Associates), he only selects his friends from a pool of hundreds of qualified architects and engineers in Honolulu,” he said.

In some cases, those friends have opted to cut corners on the UH-Hilo housing project to save themselves money, he claimed.

In a letter to Straney, Mitsunaga said that such cost-saving measures were not necessary.

“Since I have been actively involved in the design and construction business for over 40 years, I know in general how much buildings cost, and I know for a fact that the monies appropriated were more than enough to build a first-class dormitory for the students,” he wrote.

The $28 million construction contract went to Honolulu-based general contractor Albert C. Kobayashi Inc., likely at Minaai’s behest, Mitsunaga said.

“His selection committee consists of his two ‘Yes Men’ assistants and a third member from the department involved with the particular project. In essence, since he controls two out of the three votes he himself makes each selection,” he said.

The concrete and site work was then subcontracted to Hilo-based Isemoto Contracting, with the framing work going to Coastal Construction Co. Inc. of Honolulu, he said.

Other allegations concerning the UH-Hilo project include:

Minaai took punitive actions against Mitsunaga & Associates by replacing the project’s civil engineer, environmental assessment consultant, permit processor and design assist consultant.

The building’s interior doors were changed from solid to hollow core, making them less durable and more susceptible to damage by students;

The painting contractor informed engineers that its stated price covered only four colors, and not five as Mitsunaga & Associates had specified.

The painter was allowed to spray paint the building, in direct contrast to contract specifications and UH policy, which forbids it for quality, environmental and liability reasons; and

• Water was allowed to infiltrate and soak into the building’s wooden frame, opening the project up to potential mold and mildew problems.

A call placed to Kobayashi CEO Russell Young was not returned at press time.

UH-Hilo has long worked to obtain funding from the state to build its University Village, which will supply beds for 300 students.

In January, Minaai told the Tribune-Herald that the project was on schedule after its groundbreaking in June.

“We anticipate an opening in August, and we better make it, because we’ll have 300 kids looking for beds,” he said.