Friday, November 11, 2011

Founder of tax-exempt nonprofit produced 'Hawaii's Big Deal: Poker Tournament,' a reality TV show called the 'closest thing to legalized gambling in The Islands'

Hawaii's Big Deal: Poker Tournament produced by Elizabeth Hata-Watanabe with the nonprofit, tax-exempt Hata Foundation.

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Elizabeth “Liz” Hata Watanabe is the former owner of failed Honolulu nightclub and restaurant operations (O Lounge & Harbor Court Bistro).  She ran into multiple problems with the Honolulu Liquor Commission and then filed Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.

Subsequently, she founded the Hata Foundation, a tax-exempt nonprofit that was to help families and children in need get back on their feet. The Board of the Hata Foundation is controlled by extended members of  Hata-Watanabe’s family with one exception, Matt Matsunaga, the son of former U.S. Senator “Spark” Matsunaga. 

While newspapers suggest various fundraising events and parties have been held over the last couple of years to benefit the Hata Foundation, there apparently hasn’t been enough raised to cause the group to file IRS Forms 990 – or at least that’s what’s implied. 

Photo by Bruce Asato
Rather, during 2010, Hata-Watanabe reports it was with the nonprofit, tax-exempt Hata Foundation that she produced Hawaii’s Big Deal: Poker Tournament, a reality TV show with a cast of more than 72 people and centered on a multi-round Texas hold’em poker tournament filmed over a course of several weeks at the Aloha Tower Marketplace.  Last fall, the show aired Saturdays on KHON-2  (reruns were to also run on The CW).  See: In the Mix: ‘Hawaii’s Big Deal’

The first season of Hawaii’s Big Deal: Poker Tournament crowned a champion, Nicole Matsui, by October 2010. 

According to Honolulu news accounts, winners of Hawaii’s Big Deal: Poker Tournament were told they’d be treated to all expense paid trips to Las Vegas and entered in ESPN’s Poker After Dark Tournaments or something similar. 

A KHON news anchor described Hawaii’s Big Deal: Poker Tournament as the closest thing the Islands had to legalized gambling.

During Spring 2011, failing to produce a second season of Hawaii’s Big Deal: Poker Tournament, Hata-Watanabe and gambling industry lobbyist John Radcliffe linked up.  They organized a for-profit entity, Citizens for a Better Way, LLC, and through that so-called ‘citizens’ group spent $40,000 lobbying for a scheme that would have approved a commercial casino in Waikiki – potentially at the Aloha Tower Marketplace where Hata-Watanabe’s TV show Hawaii’s Big Deal: Poker Tournament took place.  Despite their best efforts, that scheme failed to win legislative approvals. 

It's not clear where Radcliffe/Hata-Watanabe got the $40,000 they spent on lobbying and advertising activities during March & April but in June 2011, Elizabeth Hata-Watanabe filed Chapter 7 Bankruptcy  (Case: 11-01679).

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