Hawaii Tourism Authority ‘s board members, meeting one day after embattled CEO Rex Johnson’s submitted his resignation, said their discussions today would include finding an interim replacement and beginning a search for a new executive to run the agency.
Johnson resigned late yesterday from his $200,000-a-year post, ending two months of controversy over using his state computer to forward racist, sexist and pornographic e-mails. Johnson, who survived a previous attempt to oust him over the e-mails, stepped down after Gov. Linda Lingle, civic leaders and several prominent tourism executives called for his termination.
The HTA originally scheduled today’s meeting to to discuss marketing strategies for the local visitor industry. The board this morning added the new items regarding the search for Johnson’s replacement.
Yesterday, the HTA’s board of directors met for more than nine hours before voting unanimously to accept Johnson’s resignation.
“At this point, certain accusations have made Rex a lightning rod for controversy. This has become a distraction of the HTA and we respect his decision,” HTA Chairman Kelvin Bloom said. “Rex’s decision is clearly in the best interest of all concerned.”
The financial terms of Johnson’s resignation were not disclosed.
Johnson, who helped nurse the state’s tourism marketing agency back to health after he was hired in 2002, did not comment after the decision. But in a news release issued by the HTA, he acknowledged his supporters and said he plans to continue to back the state’s No. 1 industry.
In the past, Johnson has apologized for the e-mails but has said he is neither racist nor sexist.
“I want to thank the tourism industry leadership, community, staff and friends who have shown me such support,” he said. “I intend to support Hawai’i’s tourism industry in whatever way I can.”
Johnson faced harsh criticism from local civic leaders and Lingle for exchanging racist and sexist jokes by e-mail on his state computer.
One of the e-mails — which were obtained by The Advertiser through a request under the state’s open records law — referred to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama as a “coon” and Sen. Hillary Clinton as a “beaver.”
The release of those e-mails came after the HTA’s board in August cut his annual pay by $40,000 to $200,000 and shortened his four-year contract to one year because 23 adult-content e-mails were found on his state computer.
Alphonso Braggs, president of the Hawai’i branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had called for Johnson’s removal, said he was satisfied with yesterday’s outcome.
“I think it is the right decision, and we certainly will do all we can to help restore the image of paradise and the spirit of Aloha,” Braggs said.
long day for board
Yesterday, the HTA’s board met publicly for 1 1/2 hours where they heard testimony from 18 supporters and critics of the HTA’s embattled CEO. The board also received written testimony from more than 100 people split about 50-50 for and against Johnson.
The board then met for eight hours behind closed doors before voting to accept Johnson’s resignation.
Former Gov. John Waihee yesterday testified in favor of Johnson, saying he has been “mischaracterized as a racist and a sexist.”
Johnson, who served as director of the state Department of Transportation in the Waihee administration, acknowledged that he made a “serious mistake” in sending out the e-mails, but has apologized and has already been punished for for his actions, Waihee said.
“I think it would be a tragedy that he is sacrificed on somebody’s altar of political correctness,” Waihee said.
John Penebacker, a member of the state Board of Education, said he’s never witnessed Johnson acting disrespectful toward anybody in the more than 30 years that he’s known the HTA chief. He said Johnson has “admittedly made a grave error and has pledged not to continue it.”
“If you were to fire every government employee who misused his computer … I don’t think you would have any employees,” Penebacker said.
HTA staffer Keli’ihoalani Wilson also spoke in favor of Johnson, saying the HTA chief “moved our organization from a state of dysfunction to one of productivity, efficiency and success.”
Wilson, who spoke on behalf of 21 other HTA staffers, said she and her fellow staffers have never seen Johnson disrespect or act against anyone because of their race, gender, age or political orientation.
“As a Hawaiian and as a woman, I know what racism and sexism are. I have personally experienced them in my life,” Wilson said. “Mr. Johnson is neither a racist or a sexist.”
Johnson ‘a liability’
However, local civil-rights attorney Daphne Barbee-Wooten said Johnson’s presence at the HTA created a hostile work environment that opened the state agency to potential civil-rights lawsuits.
His e-mails were demeaning, “mischaracterize African-Americans as lazy good-for nothings” and should not be tolerated on state computers on state time, Barbee-Wooten said.
“Terminating Rex Johnson will show that the state of Hawai’i will not tolerate these racist and sexist offensive acts by a CEO,” Barbee-Wooten said. “Otherwise, HTA’s image in the world market will be forever tarnished, not to mention opening itself up to civil-rights lawsuits. Rex Johnson is a liability, not an asset.”
Local resident Dennis Keating said the HTA would send the wrong message to the rest of the world if it were to keep Johnson.
Whenever the HTA sends Johnson to market tourism to other places in the world, it creates “the untenable position of being a conduit of racism, bigotry and pornography,” Keating said.
As part of the written testimony submitted for yesterday’s meeting, a number of local tourism officials called for Johnson’s removal.
Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotel & Resorts in Hawai’i, said he didn’t believe that Johnson is a racist but he does believe that he did something wrong.
“This situation has caused great division among the tourism industry, the Legislature and the general populace. It is distracting anyone from the most important task at hand which is to focus on our economy,” Vieira said. “It is time to move on.”