Hawaii tourism chief’s X-rated e-mails may cost him his job


Rex Johnson, the president and chief executive officer of the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, is being urged by the authority’s board of directors to resign after adult-oriented material was found in his government e-mail account.

The board discussed the matter Tuesday in executive session and two board members later approached Johnson about his possible resignation. The board’s administrative standing committee has scheduled an executive session regarding Johnson on Wednesday afternoon.

“It was a huge mistake,” Johnson said in an interview yesterday. “I have apologized for my actions to the board.”

Johnson acknowledged receiving adult-oriented e-mails on his government account and forwarding the e-mails to friends, whom he described as “fishing and baseball buddies” who often exchange jokes to keep in touch. He said the e-mails were not sent to business contacts.

Johnson said he understands his actions were an unauthorized use of state computers and contrary to state personnel guidelines against accessing or downloading sexually explicit material. But he said he does not believe it should cost him his job.

“I don’t believe so,” Johnson said. “But others may feel that it should.”

Kelvin Bloom, the chairman of the authority’s board of directors, said he has been instructed by legal counsel not to discuss the matter because it involves personnel.

“The board has the full range of options from dismissal to ‘get back to work,’ ” Johnson said.

Several state lawmakers, including state House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), and state Senate Vice President Donna Mercado Kim, D-14th (Halawa, Moanalua, Kamehameha Heights), have given their support to Johnson even though they disapprove of his actions.

Board meeting urged

Mercado Kim said through a spokesman that she personally contacted five board members, including Bloom, and asked them to hold a meeting of the full board where Johnson could explain himself. At least two other senators either personally or had their staff contact board members on Johnson’s behalf.

While embarrassing, lawmakers said, they question whether Johnson’s actions warrant his resignation or firing given his experience and the challenges facing the tourism industry during the economic downturn.

“I believe that he is definitely entitled to due process,” Hanabusa said. “I believe that he should have this discussion with his full board.

“Yes, it showed bad judgment, but the question becomes whether this is something that whoever it is that’s pressuring him to resign — whether it’s the whole board or bits of the board or whatever it may come out to be — whether this is something that warrants that decision.”

Tourism advocate

Say said Johnson has been an effective advocate for tourism at the Legislature. The speaker said the board should consider allowing Johnson to continue, given the slump in tourism. “At this point, step back, breathe in a little,” he said.

State Rep. Ryan Yamane, D-37th (Waipahu, Mililani), the chairman of the House Tourism and Culture Committee, said he questions whether changing leadership now is the right move but, like Say and others, said he is not trying to unduly influence the board.

“As chair, I would like to know how they plan to respond to or deal with the loss of somebody like Mr. Johnson as the head of HTA. You cannot, during this time in our industry, you can’t just remove somebody and think that putting somebody else in their place is going to start them off where they left off.

“There’s a learning curve.”

Ongoing probe

Johnson’s e-mails were discovered by the state auditor as part of an ongoing investigation of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and an audit of the HTA’s major contractors.

The tourism authority is under the DBEDT umbrella, but is governed by an appointed board with 12 voting members and four nonvoting members; Gov. Linda Lingle’s tourism liaison and the directors of the state Department of Transportation, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts.

The e-mails, which contain X-rated movie clips, slideshows and photographs of adult nudity, fall outside the scope of the auditor’s investigations but she reported it in late June to the Lingle administration and House and Senate leaders.

Johnson, who earns $240,000 a year, is evaluated annually by the board.

Johnson is known as a risk-taker and for his candor and he has sometimes clashed with those who prefer rosy optimism about the state’s dominant private industry.

Lingle’s appointment of Marsha Wienert as tourism liaison was widely seen in political and tourism circles as a way for the governor to have a larger voice on tourism, since Johnson reports to the board, not the governor.

Waihee cabinet member

Johnson previously served as the director of the state Department of Transportation under then-Gov. John Waihee and also as a leader with the Hawai’i Community Development Authority.

Just before he took over at the tourism authority in 2002, he was director of facilities at the Research Corporation of the University of Hawai’i, which was responsible for the planning and building of the university’s new medical school. Previously, he had been executive director for the Nature Conservancy of Hawai’i.

In 2003, another tourism leader was criticized for personal conduct. Tony Vericella, then-president of the Hawai’i Visitors and Convention Bureau, apologized after the state auditor found that he had spent $670 in taxpayer money to pay for parking and speeding tickets, in-room hotel movies and other personal expenses.

Vericella acknowledged that the spending was improper and paid the money back. He resigned shortly after the audit.