Sometimes a bit of history becomes inconvenient.
Yesterday was one of those times.
While at breakfast, the Hawaii delegation heard United Airlines director of government relations for the western states, Melinda Yee Fraklin. She discussed the financial bind the airlines have been put in by high fuel prices as well as the adjustments United and the others have made, including significant flight cutbacks.
United is still Hawaii’s leading carrier to the U.S. mainland, and as it goes, so goes the state’s visitor industry.
Franklin said United has tried to maintain capacity to Hawaii, and recently entered into a code sharing agreement with Hawaiian Air to replace its prior links to Aloha.
Franklin is an effective communicator and I’m sure an asset to United, as well as someone who can be a useful liaison for Hawaii officials. She mentioned several recent contacts with top island political leaders pushing for United to offer additional seats from the mainland.
The problem is that I remember Melinda Yee from an earlier stage of her life.
She surfaced in relation to a series of stories I wrote in the mid-1990s while with the Star-Bulletin. She had been a top aide to Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown, and a key DNC contact for a group called the Asia-Pacific Advisory Council, which raised money for the DNC and the first presidential campaign of Bill Clinton back in 1991-92.
APAC was headed by a former Hawaii couple, Nora and Gene Lum. Gene had been a staff attorney for then-City Council member and congressional candidate Leigh Wai Doo in the late 1980′s, while I was working on the council staff of Neil Abercrombie (yes, the same Neil Abercrombie who now represents Hawaii’s 1st Congressional district).
To make a long story a little shorter, because this is otherwise such a convoluted tale, Nora and Gene Lum were later convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to federal candidates. This all involved a mysterious set of transactions in which they parlayed their political connections with Brown, the DNC, and the Clinton campaign into a lucrative no-money-down deal to acquire a small Oklahoma natural gas company. They didn’t know anything about natural gas, but they apparently knew a good insider deal when they saw one. As a result, they made millions in a very short time and devoted a lot of it to Democratic political causes, making contributions, making their corporate jet available to candidates, and generally becoming players at the top levels of campaign finance.
Several connected people were given stock and appointed to the board of the company, Dynamic Energy Resources, including Melinda Yee’s mother, Ron Brown’s son, and others.
I wrote several stories about the complex deal and the associated fundraising scandal, including what was perhaps the first published account of what later became a national story.
It was a reporting experience that left me more than a little cynical about political fundraising at the highest levels of the game, where money, power, and ambition are so intricately linked.
It also left me burdened with this knowledge along with nagging memories of my unsuccessful attempts to unravel the hidden mysteries of that deeply political deal. So running into one of the players, even years later, its hard to bite my tongue and not begin asking uncomfortable questions.