Week 49: Hawaii Governor Holds Fake Press Conference

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Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie has added a new twist to state politics: the fake press conference.

Abercrombie had big news to announce late Wednesday: The state had reached a tentative labor agreement with its largest union.

The next morning he sent out a tweet on his official account, linking to a YouTube video. The tweet said: "Governor Abercrombie Press Conference on The State Reaching a Tentative Agreement with HGEA http://ow.ly/4vw13."

The video shows the governor standing in front of the seal of the state of Hawaii and the state flag, with a couple of microphones held before him. He's in the chamber where the governor traditionally holds his press conferences.

A caption on the governor's official YouTube page read: "Governor Abercrombie concluded an agreement with the Hawai'i Government Employees Association, and held this press conference immediately after."

Yet it turned out there was no press conference. The governor's staff admitted as much after Civil Beat raised questions late Thursday, changing its YouTube caption to read: "Governor Abercrombie concluded an agreement with the Hawai'i Government Employees Association."

"There was no press conference," his press secretary, Donalyn Dela Cruz, told us in an email.

She later emailed us that press conference "was the wrong term."

What happened was the governor agreed to be interviewed by reporters approved by the press office. And then the interview was filmed, giving the appearance of a press conference, the great seal of Hawaii and all.

To the credit of one of the reporters who interviewed the governor, Keoki Kerr of KITV, he brought up an aspect of the contract that the governor didn't share with the public in the press release or FAQ posted on his website — that workers would get an additional nine days off a year in exchange for taking a 5 percent pay cut.

This wasn't the first time the governor put out his news through selected reporters rather than at a public press conference where any member of the media could ask him questions. It was the first time I'd seen it done through something made by his staff to appear like a press conference, though.

A few weeks ago when budget discussions were raging, he came to a position on a possible increase in the general excise tax and held private interviews with at least three reporters — from the Associated Press, a local newspaper and a TV station.

Civil Beat was locked out, even though the governor had received a formal request for an interview regarding the budget.

We were told one of the reasons Civil Beat was not invited was that it has a small audience compared with other local media. We're not sure how the governor reached that conclusion. And we certainly weren't aware that the governor ranks media based on their size.

But Civil Beat is the largest news team in the state exclusively dedicated to public affairs journalism. We don't do sports or weather, which may be why we have a smaller, more select audience.

The fake press conference and his use of selected reporters raises a fundamental question about our new governor: Is he only going to talk to members of the press who he thinks are going to spin things the way he wants them?

The governor left out a significant fact when sharing the news of the labor agreement: That it means less pay for less work. It's true, as he said, that the deal means workers will take a 5 percent pay cut. What he omitted was that they would also get an additional nine days off. And he also was explicitly misleading, claiming that "there will be no more furloughs, meaning government offices and services will no longer shut down every other Friday." Along the same lines, he also stated: "HGEA employees will take a 5 percent pay reduction in their base pay without furloughs or lay offs."

The nine days state workers will have off are the equivalent of furloughs. The difference going forward is that employees will be able to choose when they take their furlough days, nearly a full day a month. The contract does mean fewer furlough days for most employees, though, down from 24 to nine.

Wouldn't it have been better if instead of talking to selected members of the press who he hoped would spin the story his way, the governor had shared the whole truth in an open and public press conference?

Civil Beat is committed to reporting on open government and transparency issues — not just when they apply to the governor. We scrutinize all government agencies and officials the same way.

Take this week alone. In case you missed these stories:


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