EXCLUSIVE: The former Maui film commissioner has filed a wrongful termination suit against the island’s mayor, accusing the mayor of firing him in 2013 at the request of Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, a longtime friend and booster of the mayor. Filed Friday in the U.S. District Court in Hawaii, the lawsuit (read it here), which is full of island intrigue and alleged influence peddling, claims that Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa fired his film commissioner, Harry Donenfeld, after Kavanaugh said he’d no longer support the mayor and his causes unless he got rid of him. And Donenfeld has the emails that he says proves it.
Kavanaugh, who declined comment for this story, is a big wheel on the small island. He’s had a residence there for years and is one of its largest property owners, and is a major contributor to the mayor’s charity. He’s also been pushing for tax incentives to build a mega-studio there, and for a doubling of the state’s tax incentives program to attract more film and TV productions to the islands, where Maui, which has long been a backwater Hawaiian film locale – a distant third to Oahu and Kauai.
But the studio mogul couldn’t stand the island’s film commissioner, who he thought was incompetent and getting in the way of Kavanaugh’s own projects there. He also blamed Donenfeld for putting the kibosh on his bid to get the County of Maui to invest in Safe Haven, the 2013 Relativity film starring Julianne Hough, which Kavanaugh said would have netted the county $30 million if it had filmed there. Donenfeld argued that it would have been wrong to have gambled the taxpayers’ money on the movie, which shot in North Carolina instead.
Emails between Kavanaugh and the mayor’s top staff reveal that Kavanaugh threatened to withdraw his support for the state’s movie tax bill and for the mayor’s charity unless Donenfeld was fired.
Those emails, some of which were cited in the lawsuit and other obtained by Deadline, show that Kavanaugh became particularly incensed upon reading a March 5, 2013, article in The Maui News that first revealed plans by Maui Film Studios to convert a 21,000-square-foot warehouse into sound stages – without taxpayer support. Donenfeld was a big supporter of that project, which later went bust.
“I read today’s announcement about the ‘Largest stages being built in Maui’ and I must say I’m really disappointed,” Kavanaugh said in an email sent that day to two of the mayor’s top staffers. “You guys may not be aware, but we have been at the state virtually every weekend this year…and we are very close to getting the bill passed. I’ve had three calls already today from different members of the (Hawaii) House and Senate as to ‘What the hell is this’ assuming we are involved.”
“The announcement,” he wrote, “is ridiculous. It makes Hollywood think Maui doesn’t understand the first thing about the business and the specs of the stages aren’t enough to shoot a porn, let alone one scene of a movie. More important, it severely hurts our bill and my and Relativity’s credibility with the state.”
Kavanaugh also blamed the film commissioner for hyping and promoting the rival studio. “I have, for years now, sat and watched this guy Harry, who doesn’t know the first thing about the film business, misadvise you guys, lie to you, and trash talk me,” he told the mayor’s top aides. “As interns at our company know more than he ever will, it didn’t bother me as I assumed he was hired as a favor to someone or had special needs.”
“I sat quiet as he trash talked me at the mayor’s last event, and didn’t say a word when he cost Maui $30 million by killing the Safe Haven investment. But now he is affecting me, as people assume I am involved in Maui’s film industry, given my three years and exhaustive resources we’ve put in. Thus, I am no longer standing in silence.”
The email, obtained by Deadline, was sent just four days before the mayor’s annual gala ball was to be held to celebrate the mayor’s charity, the Arakawa Kokua Fund. According to the lawsuit, “Kavanaugh was the single largest contributor to the Arakawa Kokua Fund during 2012, contributing $57,500 of the $59,122 revenue received by the Mayor Arakawa Kokua Fund during that year, an amount approximately equal to 97.3% of total revenue.”
Kavanaugh was the honorary chairman of that weekend’s sold-out ball, which was billed as an evening of “glitz, glamour, celebrity sightings and entertaining fun.” Kavanaugh had even arranged for Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody to fly in from Paris to attend the event. But now Kavanaugh was threatening to boycott the ball unless something was done about the film commissioner.
“I cannot be at the event this weekend or continue to support the bill if Harry is involved,” Kavanaugh wrote in the email. “It comes at too high a cost to me and my business. We are working on multiple states and countries, and although this (article) may seem small, when others read it, they assume I’ve blessed it and it reflects poorly on us. It also reflects poorly on Maui, as well, making it seem like Maui has no understanding of the industry.”
“I’m sick of Harry,” Kavanaugh wrote in a separate email that same day. “He is a lightweight and just gets in the way…I’m done with this Harry guy. I’m no longer going to work on the Hawaii initiative unless Harry is no longer involved.”
Minutes after receiving the first email, Jock Yamaguchi, the mayor’s executive assistant, fired off an email to Keith Regan, the managing director of the county of Maui, with Kavanaugh’s email attached. “Keith, did you get this email?” he asked. “I just read it. Ryan seems a bit upset. Hope he doesn’t pull plug on this weekend, as it’s sold out at $1,250 to $3,000 per table. I’d imagine some bought tickets, in part, to meet Ryan and celeb friends. Hope mayor called him yesterday.”
That same day, a staffer wrote: “I’m told that Harry is having a fit because he’s not receiving credit for this new studio, and now wants a separate press release saying that he had a significant role in it. It is concerning that a ‘team member’ is so willing to do something that would hinder our efforts at the legislature. I hope he is not doing things underhanded and contrary to the mayor’s direct orders. I have heard Harry and Teena (Rasmussen, the director of Maui’s office of economic development) say things to the mayor that were completely false – like Ryan Kavanaugh has no money.”
Two years later, Relativity would file for bankruptcy, from which it emerged this past April. Kavanaugh and Relativity now have three films being released this year: Before I Wake, Masterminds and Kidnapped.
Later that day, Yamaguchi, emailed Kavanaugh, assuring him that Donenfeld “will be fired” if he interferes with the film incentives legislation. “The mayor tried calling you,” he told Kavanaugh. “He has the managing director, chief of staff, another cabinet member, meeting with him tonight with directive that they tell him – if he gets involved in the film legislation at all, or issues, or has his friends issue, anything to the media regarding film – that he will be fired.”
Later that night, the mayor dispatched four of his top aides – Yamaguchi, Regan, communications director Rod Antone, and chief of staff Herman Andaya – to meet with Donenfeld at a local Starbucks to lay down the law.
“At the Starbucks meeting,” the suit states, “managing director Regan expressly declared the primary purpose of the Starbucks meeting was to protect the relationship between Kavanaugh and the mayor and to order Donenfeld not to harm the movie tax bill in any way, and stop Donenfeld’s support for Maui Film Studios because Maui Film Studios threatened Kavanaugh and the movie tax bill.”
During that meeting, according to information obtained by Deadline, Regan, the county’s managing director, said he was “going to get right to the point” about Kavanaugh. “Whether we like him or not, whether we agree with his position, or his direction or whatever it is, you’re right: it’s not about that. I’m putting it on the table. He likes the mayor. For whatever reason, he likes the mayor. I’m glad. He’s friends with the mayor, he invites the mayor over to his house, he plays chess with the mayor, he brings celebrities to play chess with the mayor. He gives the mayor money for whatever, for Kokua Fund, for the Aloha initiative, for you name it, for the campaign. This guy has even gone so far that he has even brought in people to contribute to other candidates who we support. Example, Mufi Hannemann (the former mayor or Honolulu). Big dollars from all over brought in to support.”
Regan then told Donenfeld, “For whatever reason, Ryan thinks you have it out for him.”
Donenfeld, however, replied that no matter what he thinks of Kavanaugh, he always supported him in public. “Every time I have a conversation with anybody, anytime I go in front of press, anytime I have a microphone, a camera, or any kind of an open forum that we’re discussing it, the line is simple. ‘We support Mr. Kavanaugh. We wish him the best of luck in his endeavors and we’re happy that he’s chosen Maui County. He deserves a bust in the center of town because of his approach and his whatever.’ ”
Donenfeld told Deadline that he followed orders and kept mum about his reservations about the movie tax bill, which ended up failing.
Kavanaugh emailed the mayor directly on July 27, 2013, telling him that he could personally influence two movies to shoot in Maui – one of which was for Relativity – but was reluctant to do so because he and the other producer “wouldn’t want to deal with Maui’s current film commissioner. Do you have any time to discuss?”
Three weeks later, Donenfeld was called to a meeting at the mayor’s office to meet with Kavanaugh, the mayor and several of his top aides. According to the lawsuit, the mayor’s chief of staff did not attend the meeting, but for some reason “listened in on the meeting by occupying the bathroom that adjoins the managing director’s and the mayor’s office for the duration of this meeting.”
That meeting, the suit states, “was conducted by Kavanaugh where he reaffirmed his prior positions, as stated in the March 5, 2013 emails, and criticized Donenfeld’s performance as film commissioner.” At the conclusion of the meeting, the suit states, “Rasmussen told Donenfeld that he was to be at his desk every morning by 7:45 am or he would be fired.”
A week later, Donenfeld was fired for not being at his desk at the appointed time. The suit claims that he was wrongfully terminated, and that the mayor later defamed him when he told a local reporter that “the reason he was fired was because he wasn’t coming to work, period” – and that he “was given every option to continue working. He discontinued it.”
When asked by a reporter for The Maui News in October 2015 whether a dispute between Kavanaugh and Donenfeld had led to Arakawa administration officials attempting to “gag” the film commissioner, the mayor said: “No. That is not true.”
The suit claims that “because the Mayor knew that Donenfeld was terminated as Maui County Film Commissioner as a political favor to his friend and financial supporter, Ryan Kavanaugh, and not because Donenfeld had missed work, Mayor Arakawa’s defamatory statements were made with actual malice.”