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Protest calls for Hawaii tourism chief’s ouster

Written by editor

About two dozen protesters shouted “Rex Johnson has to go!” in unison as they carried placards and marched today down Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue — in the heart of Hawai’i’s tourist mecca.

About two dozen protesters shouted “Rex Johnson has to go!” in unison as they carried placards and marched today down Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue — in the heart of Hawai’i’s tourist mecca. “Just say no!”

Alphonso Braggs, president of the Hawai’i chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organized the protest as a way to elicit petition signatures calling for Johnson’s ouster as head of the Hawai’i Tourism Authority.

“Today, we are protesting to urge the Hawaii Tourism Authority to either fire Rex Johnson as the CEO and president, or to urge him to step aside or resign,” said Braggs at the start of the march.

“The reason we are doing this is because Rex Johnson, as CEO and president, on paid time, sent out racist, sexist and pornographic material from his computer. It does not matter that he simply forwarded them. It was over a period of time. It wasn’t a singular incident.”

The protesters also made it clear that they consider the HTA board’s refusal to suspend Johnson is inexcusable.

Following the protest march, Johnson issued a statement reiterating his regret over the e-mails.

“I again want to apologize to the people of Hawai’i,” it said. “Forwarding offensive e-mails was a lack of judgment on my part and a terrible mistake. While it is not a reflection of my character or beliefs, I understand the seriousness of my actions. I am truly sorry for offending anyone as this was not my intent.”

He added, “I believe the state has had access to the e-mails which were the subject of recent news articles and upon which I was disciplined. The HTA board and I reached resolution on this matter and I regret that they have to deal with this situation again.”

Johnson also said he would continue to work on behalf of the HTA, and that he would abide by any decision the board makes.

In late August, the HTA board voted unanimously to retain Johnson, but it cut Johnson’s $240,000 annual salary by $40,000 and reduced his four-year contract to one year.

But the situation escalated this month after it was revealed that Johnson’s e-mails had also included material considered racist and sexist, and Gov. Linda Lingle called for Johnson’s ouster. However, the HTA board has stuck with its August decision.

“Today, the citizens are speaking — not the corporate heads,” said Braggs. “And these are the people who are being affected.”

Jeff and Marluce Peters of Australia listened to Braggs and were moved to sign the petition.

“I’ve never heard of Rex Johnson, but I don’t like racism or sexism,” said Jeff Peters as he signed the form.

Waikiki resident William Smith didn’t hesitate to sign the petition.

“Johnson is supposed to be bringing tourism to Hawai’i — not racism,” said Smith. “He let a lot of people down. He needs to do the right thing and just go.”

Bill Diss and Don Norby of the Big Island were also among the more than 300 people who eventually signed the petition.

“He just made a stupid mistake,” said Norby. “You don’t get on your business e-mail in your workplace and incorporate your personal e-mails, especially when it comes to porno and whatever slapstick stuff he was dealing with. He ought to know better than that.”

John Penebacker, a longtime friend of Johnson’s, wasn’t at the protest but said those involved had every right to express their opinion. However, he said he doubted if many of the protesters had bothered to get to know Johnson.

“How can you call for someone’s ouster and question their character when you’ve never even met him?” he said.

But Braggs said the issue is not about whether Johnson is a good man who has done good deeds.

“This is about whether or not Mr. Johnson’s unethical, inappropriate, racist and sexist behaviors are in direct conflict with this significant position of public trust.”