The state agency that promotes tourism to Hawaii said Tuesday it would pay its disgraced former president more than $290,000, most as a “resignation payment,” after he was heavily criticized for forwarding offensive e-mails to friends from his work computer.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s board agreed to the payment to avoid a possible lawsuit, chair Kelvin Bloom said. The board also was concerned a pay dispute with Rex Johnson, who resigned last month, would distract the agency.

“The board did consider the alternative of potential litigation and the fees and costs associated with that,” Bloom said. “On balance, the board believed this was a reasonable compromise.”

Bloom said $208,000 equals the salary Johnson would have received through August if he had been fired without cause. The rest of the payment is for his unused vacation time.
A phone number listed for Johnson was busy Tuesday. In a statement he issued when he resigned, Johnson thanked the community, staff, and friends and said he intended to continue supporting Hawaii tourism.

Johnson was one of the highest paid and most powerful state employees with a four-year contract worth $240,000 annually — more than double the salary of Gov. Linda Lingle.
His troubles began after a state audit found 23 pornographic e-mails on his government computer. That led the board to reprimand Johnson, cut his salary to $200,000, and shrink the term of his contract to one year from four years.

Then, about a month later, it became known Johnson had also received and forwarded e-mails with racist and sexist jokes from his government computer. One e-mail from March 22 referred to Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with derogatory words.
Lingle, civil rights groups and others swiftly demanded Johnson’s ouster. The board accepted his resignation on Oct. 8.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority is solely funded by the 7.25 percent transient accommodations tax imposed on hotel rooms and rental contracts lasting less than 180 days.
The agency received about one-third of the $224.9 million in transient accommodations tax revenues the state collected last year, with the rest going to Hawaii’s four counties and a convention center enterprise fund.