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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Panel drops complaint on Harris' party donation

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser City Hall Writer

The executive director of the state Campaign Spending Commission is withdrawing a complaint that alleges that Mayor Jeremy Harris' campaign committee improperly donated $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2000.

Mayor Jeremy Harris gave to the national Democatic party.

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Campaign Spending Commission executive director Robert Watada said yesterday he is pulling back the complaint because his staff is small, and his office needs to concentrate on more pressing priorities.

"We have so many other issues that are important right now," Watada said. He said his office has been borrowing deputies from the attorney general's office to help with all of its investigations, but those deputies are now needed to handle other work.

Harris campaign attorney Chris Parsons said the decision shows that Watada knew he couldn't prove the allegations.

"He understands that he has no case and he just doesn't want to have a judge tell him that in public," Parsons said.

While yesterday's action clears one cloud hanging over the Harris campaign in the middle of his bid for governor, he still faces several legal challenges. Those include a Circuit Court ruling that he should have already resigned as mayor to run for governor; that campaign contributions he received in his 2000 mayoral re-election campaign should count against his donors' $6,000 contribution limit this year; and an ongoing criminal investigation by the city prosecutor's office that Harris received illegal campaign donations.

Watada had filed documents with the commission that alleged that the Harris campaign had donated the $100,000 to a "soft money" account and failed to report it to the commission, and spent more than $24,000 on expenses unrelated to re-election, such as trips to Washington, D.C., California and the Philippines, and paying parking tickets for a campaign volunteer.

Robert Watada said the mayor's donation was improper.

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In February, the Campaign Spending Commission balked at Watada's recommendation that the Harris campaign be required to pay a $350,000 fine over those allegations. The commission voted 3-2 to give its staff a month to compile more evidence to support the complaint, and to allow Harris a month after that to prepare a response.

Parsons said another Harris attorney has written a letter to commission chairman A. Duane Black, saying that the campaign is entitled to have the allegations resolved one way or another, either dismissed by the commission or have the opportunity to go back to federal court and have a judge rule.

Parsons said this latest development can be seen as the third victory "of sorts" for the campaign in various court battles. Earlier, a state judge ruled that the campaign could continue while the Hawai'i Supreme Court decides whether Harris must resign from office to run for governor.

And the campaign also challenged Watada's contention that all contributions made to Harris since November 1998 should be counted toward the $6,000-per-donor limit in the governor's race, including those made while Harris was seeking re-election as mayor.

On March 12, U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor granted a preliminary injunction that ordered the Campaign Spending Commission to stop counting contributions to Harris' 2000 re-election campaign toward the $6,000-per-donor limit in the governor's race.

"We're being hurt by this even though we're winning," Parsons said of the numerous legal issues.

Parsons said he regards Watada's action this week as trying now to quietly end the issue over the $100,000 donation while reserving the right to come back to it later. Watada said he remains convinced "it's a legitimate issue and it should be argued out before the commission." And he would not rule out pursuing the issue later this year.

"Let's let it cool off," Watada said. "Let's reassess maybe after the election."

Parsons said what Watada is trying to do is avoid his day of reckoning.

"Clearly, Bob Watada has blinked," Parsons said.

Watada said the move reflects his concern that it's more important for his office to concentrate on seeking legislation to tighten campaign spending regulations to help sever the link between candidates and contractors who contribute to campaigns then get contracts from the elected officials they support. He said he also wants to focus on other investigations of instances where there appears to be wrongdoing, he said. Watada said he wants to end the practice of such contractors feeding at the public trough.