Mahi Pono community relations director Tiare Lawrence

Last week, Mahi Pono community relations director Tiare Lawrence took to Facebook to attack MauiTime’s reporting and more specifically, our reporter Deborah Caulfield Rybak. In her public post, Lawrence called Rybak “corrupt and dishonest,” and identified a source who had asked not to be named in print in Rybak’s February 27 piece, “Mahi Pono Plays Politics.” The story documented an interaction confirmed by the source, where Lawrence offered him – a politically active businessman – ”a lot of money” if he ran for office against current State Rep. Tina Wildberger. 

I stand by our reporting on Mahi Pono and our reporter Deborah Caulfield Rybak. 

While saying the story was based on “no real facts,” Lawrence admitted to the interaction, writing, “I offered to volunteer and fundraise money for [name redacted by MauiTime due to our commitment to the source] if he decided to run for state house.” In the post, Lawrence said the discussion was taken out of context, but she still did not address the question posed to her and Mahi Pono multiple times: Was Tiare Lawrence speaking as a Mahi Pono employee or as a private citizen when she was offering “a lot of money” to support a candidate for political office?

This matters because Rybak’s story was about Mahi Pono’s lobbyists, its efforts to push legislation, and its support for certain politicians and antagonism toward others. It is in the public’s interest to know how an immensely powerful company is influencing politics, so this question – which the company and Lawrence refused to answer – is one that we believe the community deserves answered to inform their voting choices and civic engagement.

Unfortunately, this is just the latest instance of Tiare Lawrence and her employer’s unwillingness to act transparently and live up to its chosen name Mahi Pono, which means “to grow or cultivate properly.” The company – a marriage between a California agriculture investment company and a Canadian pension fund – has consistently refused to respond to MauiTime’s requests for information and comments, despite their so-called commitment to “being a good neighbor.”

No one from the company has asked for a correction to any of our stories on Mahi Pono.

In another instance where Lawrence obfuscated and attacked us rather than answer questions raised by Rybak’s reporting, Lawrence took to Facebook to call a January 25 MauiTime story “just another hit piece” and “pathetic reporting,” and tried to malign Rybak by describing her as being “from Southern California, white, rich and privileged.” The story reported on alleged comments by a University of Hawai‘i extension agent about the company’s use of the highly toxic restricted use pesticide paraquat. Mahi Pono and Tiare Lawrence did not answer direct questions asking whether they used, or are using, the chemical. They did not respond to requests to disclose all RUPs used by the company. We told Mahi Pono that if the information in the story was wrong, we would update the story with their comments. Still, nothing. 

Now, we have the receipts. 

After learning that the “sustainable agriculture” company used paraquat, we filed a Uniform Information Practices Act request with the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture Pesticides Branch for documentation of restricted use pesticides applied in the county. In this report (which, ironically, is mandated annually by state law because of efforts Lawrence participated in during her activist days – efforts that led MauiTime to endorse her campaign for State House in 2018) Mahi Pono documents six applications of paraquat and two of another restricted use pesticide, cyfluthrin. (See this week’s cover story.)

Basically, while community relations director Tiare Lawrence was on Facebook attempting to discredit our reporting, the disputed report – that Mahi Pono had used the highly toxic and widely banned restricted pesticide paraquat – turned out to be true.

This effort to discredit local journalism and journalists to boost a company’s image should concern every resident of this island. MauiTime was the first outlet to break the news of the sale of Alexander and Baldwin’s sugarcane lands, and we are the only media company that continues to shine a critical light on Mahi Pono. As a result, Mahi Pono has resorted to pettiness: not sending us press releases, ignoring our requests for information, and allowing a “community relations” director to baselessly attack our reporting and libel our staff in efforts to blur the true matters and questions at hand.

These issues are important and should be addressed to advance critical discussions relating to the health and well-being of Maui’s residents.

It bears repeating that Mahi Pono – a company that didn’t exist until late 2018 – is now the island’s largest private landowner, and that with its part-ownership of East Maui Irrigation the company also controls part of Maui’s water infrastructure. Recently, it became majority partner in an association of Maui’s five largest cattle companies. Mahi Pono, as the purchaser of A&B’s land, also inherits the reputation and history of these lands, which includes claims of ownership disputed by Native Hawaiians, decades of water diversion from East Maui streams, chemical-based industrial monocrop agriculture, labor exploitation, and environmental complaints.

A company with this much power, influence, and impact owes it to the community to be pono – not just in name but in action, by being righteous, open, transparent, and honest. A company with this much power deserves scrutiny.

As journalists, we believe that information is crucial. We can, and should, have an open discussion as a community about “sustainable agriculture,” the acceptability of pesticides, farming, and the future of our island. If Mahi Pono wants to justify its use of paraquat and RUPs, fine. But a conversation that advances the dialogue and empowers citizens to form educated opinions can only happen if the company involved and the public engage in good faith.

Based on recent evidence, and the company’s refusal to answer questions related to their pesticide reports for this week’s story, it seems that this is not how Mahi Pono intends to operate.

Regardless, MauiTime will continue to write about Mahi Pono. That is our job. We believe that people deserve to be informed, and that the best future for the island is one where people are informed and engaged in community decision-making.

If Mahi Pono or Tiare Lawrence would like to advance this discussion or dispute what is being reported, we urge them to refrain from libeling our journalists and hard work, and instead follow through on their stated commitment to the community by responding frankly to media inquiries in the name of transparency and public trust. 

What do you think?

Do you trust Mahi Pono? Why or why not?

Vote and leave a comment in our weekly readers survey by following the link below for a chance to appear in print! #coconutpoll

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