Dinner And Drinks? It's On Jim Donovan!

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UPDATED 2:30 p.m.

A $136 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne for the publisher of Honolulu's only daily newspaper. An $836 dinner with that same publisher and his wife at Alan Wong's.

Forty-seven dollars for drinks at the Mai Tai Bar with a major newspaper's editorial page editor. A $162 dinner in Fresno, Calif., with two of its top sports reporters.

One-hundred sixty dollars just for the tip on a dinner with a Hawaii lawmaker and his wife at a Las Vegas casino. An invitation for a state senator and his wife to the Aloha Stadium press box and its $500 catered buffet. A $41 lunch with U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono's press secretary at Kincaid's Restaurant.

Those are some of the details that emerge from Civil Beat's analysis of nearly five years of University of Hawaii Athletics Department expense reports that were reimbursed by the UH Foundation.

The foundation is supported by tax-deductible private donations. In fiscal year 2012, more than $6.9 million in foundation money was designated for the University of Hawaii at Manoa athletics department, about $1.5 million more than in the previous fiscal year.

Most of the receipts were submitted by Jim Donovan, who was athletics director beginning in 2008 until his dismissal this summer midway through the last year of his five-year contract. Donovan was demoted to another job in the aftermath of the blown Stevie Wonder benefit concert.

As part of his duties, Donovan traveled frequently and took many people out for dinner and drinks, most of them people in the business of college sports.

But, as noted above, he also entertained important political and media figures. The figures referred to above are, respectively, Honolulu Star-Advertiser Dennis Francis, then-Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial page editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding, sports reporters Ferd Lewis and Stephen Tsai, state Rep. Mark Takai, then-state Sen. Norman Sakamoto and Hirono's press secretary Marvin Buenconsejo.

The expense reports reveal a cozy relationship between UH athletics and two groups that have intimate and sometimes contentious relations with the department.

Takai, for example, is a leading voice calling for the resignation of UH President M.R.C. Greenwood in light of the Wonder concert mess, while veteran reporter Lewis has led the Star-Advertiser's investigation into the matter.

"Especially for journalists, there is no free lunch," said Gerald Kato, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii. "Basically, the obligation of the journalist is to be independent, and to maintain not only the reality of independence but also the appearance."

Kato continued: "I know most of these guys, and I am sure that they did not accept with the thought that they can be bought in some way. But the mere fact that it comes out now that they are enjoying a meal and drinks with the athletics director and that it is on Donovan's tab, it does create the appearance of conflict."

Frank Bridgewater, Star-Advertiser editor and vice president, said Thursday his reporters follow the same rules that all journalists do, "which is they try to pay their share at the time, and if for some reason they are not able to make a payment, they repay that meal by taking — in this case, the athletics director — out for a dinner at a later date. So, it is not one-sided."

Bridgewater said the best way to deal with any perception of conflict is to be transparent as possible.

"I also think we expect reporters to have sources, to work with them and get beyond the news conference and the press release," he said. "I was reviewing the New York Times policy over the last few days, and having sources is an essential skill. That comes outside of normal business hours and seeing them for drinks and dinner — as long as you make clear it's business versus social. And you have to trust reporters to keep an arm's-length distance."

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