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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 21, 2002

Harris seeks lawyers' fees

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mayor Jeremy Harris and his election campaign committee have asked a federal judge to make the state pay their attorney bills from a lawsuit in which a political ally successfully sued the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Court records show Harris and the committee that ran his campaign for governor have asked that the state be made to pay nearly $55,000 to two lawyers involved in the case, William McCorriston and Chris Parsons.

Attorney Lex Smith, a Harris appointee to the city Ethics Commission, sued the campaign commission in February over donation limits it had imposed on Harris' top political contributors. Harris and his campaign later joined the suit in support of Smith.

In March, U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor ruled in their favor and found it unconstitutional for the commission to count donations to Harris' 2000 mayoral re-election campaign toward the $6,000-per-donor limit for the governor's race.

Smith later asked that the state be ordered to pay $184,000 for his attorney fees, then settled in August for an undisclosed lesser amount. Harris is seeking $38,379 for McCorriston, and his campaign wants $16,523 for Parsons.

Parsons said it is not unusual or unreasonable for those who successfully challenge a government entity over a constitutional issue to be awarded reasonable attorney fees. Such recoveries are meant to encourage citizens to enforce civil rights laws in court rather than rely on the government to do so, he said.

But state attorneys representing the commission say Harris' claim became moot after he dropped out of the race for governor in May, and that Parsons did little work on the case that was not redundant to that done by Smith's lawyers.

"When he withdrew from the election, Harris, as a private individual, simply lost all stakes in a lawsuit concerning contributions to a political campaign he had abandoned," Deputy Attorney General Gary Kam argued in a court filing.

McCorriston and Parsons say Harris qualifies for the money because Gillmor ruled on the case before Harris dropped out, and that Parsons can firmly document the work he did.

The request is now before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren, who could issue a recommendation to Gillmor at any time.

The four-year "election period" preceding this year's gubernatorial contest overlapped with the period before Harris' 2000 re-election as mayor. The campaign commission had counted donations to both races together towards the $6,000 limit if they were made during the two-year overlap.

That had crippled the Harris campaign by limiting major supporters — those who had given Harris the maximum of $4,000 in his run for mayor — to donating no more than $2,000 for the governor's race. Candidates who had not run for office since 1998, such as now-Gov. Linda Lingle, had been free to seek the full $6,000 from each contributor.

Smith's suit argued that the limits on donations to Harris violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of expression by unfairly limiting Smith's ability to support Harris. Gillmor agreed, ruling that the overlap should not matter since the races in question were for different offices.

"The suit could have been prevented if they had simply seen the law through clear eyes," Parsons said.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.