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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 7, 2002

Harris campaign draws complaint for expenditures

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mayor Jeremy Harris' campaign committee could be facing more than $350,000 in fines for improper and unreported expenditures such as parking tickets and trips to the Mainland and overseas, said state Campaign Spending Commission executive director Robert Watada.

"There is no basis" for the new charges, said Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Advertiser library photo 8 Jan. 18, 2002

But Harris and his campaign say they did nothing wrong and will fight the allegations, which are outlined in a four-count complaint filed by Watada for the commission's Feb. 13 meeting.

The complaint charges that Harris' 2000 re-election committee spent nearly $24,000 on travel and other expenses unrelated to his campaign, that it improperly gave more than $100,000 to the national Democratic Party and Al Gore's presidential campaign, and that it failed to report both sets of expenditures.

"I see a lot of things in the expenditures that tell me they feel they can spend their money any way they want to, and when it comes to contributions it's the same thing," Watada said.

Expenses questioned in the complaint include $10,803 for travel by Harris and campaign officials to Washington, D.C., San Francisco and San Jose; $1,116 for a trip by Harris to the Philippines; $1,760 in other airline tickets; and more than $350 in campaign workers' parking tickets.

The campaign said all the expenses cited were legal and proper: the Mainland trips were to further Harris's political aspirations; the Philippines visit was a trade mission to bolster ties with that country; and the parking tickets and other items were general expenses incurred while legitimately operating a campaign.

Watada said he did not believe the charges warranted a criminal investigation, and that he would recommend that the commission instead issue a fine. That could total as much as three times the amount of alleged unlawful contributions and expenditures, but could be challenged at a commission hearing and in court.

Last month, the commission forwarded to prosecutors Watada's complaint that the Harris campaign circumvented contribution limits by illegally attributing donations to people who had not made them. Harris and his campaign have denied the charge and say Watada has unfairly targeted Harris, who plans to run for governor in November as a Democrat.

Harris said yesterday that he did not believe the new complaint would hold up under scrutiny.

"I've seen the complaint and I'm not concerned, because I know there's no basis for any of the accusations," Harris said. "The legal process will prove that out. In the meantime, we continue to run a great campaign with strong and growing support."

In a response filed with the commission, the campaign said the complaint is riddled with "leaps of logic," and that the commissioners should seek a review by outside attorneys before taking any action.

"Even a cursory review reveals that the expenditures were for common and traditional campaign activities permitted under Hawai'i law and protected by First Amendment guarantees of free speech," campaign attorney Chris Parsons wrote in a response to the charges.

The commission has issued nine fines since November to companies and individual donors who gave Harris' campaign more than the legal limit. Two of the companies also gave excess contributions to other Hawai'i politicians.

In a related matter, a Kalihi firm called Thermal Engineering Corp. has agreed to pay the commission a $31,000 fine for excess contributions to Harris and others.

Investigators for the commission found that the company, which has worked as a subcontractor on state projects, improperly reimbursed members of its board of directors for $16,000 in contributions to Harris, $21,075 to Gov. Ben Cayetano, $2,000 to Maui Mayor James "Kimo" Apana, and $200 to gubernatorial candidate Linda Lingle.

The firm's attorney, Patricia McHenry, said the directors thought their contributions were lawful and that the law governing such contributions is vague. Thermal Engineering admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to the fine to settle the case.

Watada said the law governing such contributions is clear, but he stopped short of saying the company violated it intentionally.

"You have to use your own money when you make contributions," Watada said. "When someone else gives you money or you get reimbursed, it's not your own money."

Several people linked to another company whose donations the commission is investigating, Ernest K. Hirata and Associates, are attempting to quash subpoenas that the commission issued through private investigators.

Attorney Kunio Kuwabe yesterday filed papers in Circuit Court seeking to suppress subpoenas issued to Ernest Hirata, Phyllis Hirata, James Hirata and Lynn Kitamura, all of whom are officers or who have direct links to the engineering firm that bears Ernest Hirata's name. Kuwabe also asked that subpoenas issued to Chong Hui Kim and Jung K. Kim be quashed.

The relationship between the Kims and the engineering firm was not immediately clear last night, and Kuwabe could not be reached for comment. But Watada said investigators want to know if the people being subpoenaed were illegally reimbursed for contributions made to Harris and Cayetano at the behest of others who had already given the legal amount.

A single person or company can give a candidate no more than $6,000 for a statewide race or $4,000 for a county race during a campaign cycle that includes the primary and general elections.

Advertiser Staff Writer David Waite contributed to this report.

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