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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 6, 2002

Architect links campaign donors to city contracts

By Robbie Dingeman and Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writers

The awarding of lucrative contracts for public works projects in Hawai'i often appears to hinge directly on money that politicians demand for their election campaigns, according to a Honolulu architect who testified yesterday before an investigative grand jury probing city contracting and campaign donations to Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Roy Amemiya, former city budget director, arrives for yesterday's hearing by the investigative grand jury looking into how campaign contributions may tie in with the awarding of city contracts.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The system is hurting businesses, inflating the cost of government, and should be stamped out as soon as possible, said John Tatom, who said he has run a Honolulu architectural firm in his name since 1960 and seen the process in action.

"I think that the grand jury is looking at something that's been going on for 50 years," he said. "And in my opinion, it's a wide-ranging and accepted process whereby reigning politicians are able to extort money from contractors, engineers and architects in return for jobs."

Tatom, one of about two dozen witnesses who were subpoenaed, said he strongly supports Harris and had not been extorted by the mayor's campaign. But he said he had done very little work for government because of the inherent demand for campaign contributions.

"If the jury is going to count for something, they would put an end to that because it is a system that really defeats good architecture and good planning, rewards mediocrity generally and is worthy of Mississippi in 1940, so I'd like to put an end to it, and I'm going to tell these people a few things about it," he said prior to testifying. "In order to survive in the system and be viable, one plays the system. There's no way around it."

Tatom said he has done design work for three major city projects on a volunteer basis during Harris' tenure, at the administration's request: the Central O'ahu Regional Park, the Waipi'o Soccer Complex, and the narrowing of Kalakaua Avenue.

The work was worth at least $100,000, Tatom said, but he did it for free and did not consider it a gift to Harris, his campaign or the city government.

"My opinion was that it was going to contribute to the general public good," Tatom said. "I did a lot of work to get a lot of wonderful projects going because nobody could visualize what they were."

Tatom said he was later paid a "minor" amount for additional work on the park project. He said prosecutors had directed him to present the grand jury with plans he prepared for the soccer complex.

Tatom said he had not contributed money to Harris' political campaigns and had refused to participate in the system he described.

City Department of Design and Construction director Rae Loui, one of at least four current and former members of Harris' Cabinet who testified, said she has not seen a link between the award of nonbid consultant contracts and contributions in more than a decade with state and county government on two islands.

Before testifying, architect John Tatom told reporters that the "accepted process" here is "worthy of Mississippi in 1940."

Courtesy KHON

"Nobody in all of that time has asked me to select a consultant," said Loui, whose department oversees contracts for planning and building city projects and whose career has included working for the administrations of then-Maui Mayor Linda Lingle, Gov. John Waihe'e, and Gov. Ben Cayetano.

Loui said she's not sure how Tatom got the impression that there is a link between public works and campaigns. Some people may assume there is a connection between contracts and contributions, partly because of the Island culture of exchanging gifts and favors, she said.

"They're extending that to an unnatural conclusion," Loui said. "They make it evolve into something that is not."

She said the city's consultant selection process is based on technical competency, performance and qualifications.

"What Mr. Tatom is asking for, selection based on merit, is exactly what we do at the city," she said. "At no time have I been asked by any member of the Harris administration to select a specific consultant."

Also testifying yesterday were former city budget directors Caroll Takahashi and Roy Amemiya, and Department of Planning and Permitting Director Randall Fujiki.

Harris campaign attorney Chris Parsons was subpoenaed to present certain campaign documents and vouch for them. "From my point of view, it went exactly as I expected," he said. "We provided the documents they requested and I authenticated them, and that was the extent of my involvement.

Parsons went on to say: "I look forward to the day when this is all wrapped up and I'm still very confident that when all is said and done, no important member of the Harris campaign will be found to have done anything wrong."

Employees of four companies that contributed to Harris' campaigns were also subpoenaed: ParEn, Inc/Park Engineering, R.M. Towill Corp., SSFM International Inc. and Thermal Engineering Corp.

Many witnesses who arrived to testify declined to identify themselves and ignored questions from reporters. Not all the witnesses had testified by the end of the day, and the grand jury is expected to convene for additional sessions.

Attorney Pam Tamashiro, who represents five subpoenaed employees from Thermal Engineering, said attorneys often advise clients to invoke their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent before a grand jury. "In an abundance of caution, taking the Fifth may be a wise thing at this point," she said.

Prosecutors can seek a court order compelling testimony if they grant witnesses immunity from prosecution, but those handling the case declined to say if that is a strategy they will pursue.

Tamashiro confirmed that her clients had been contacted by the U.S. attorney's office about matters related to the case, but she declined to be specific. She said that testimony given to a state grand jury could be used by federal prosecutors, however.

The state Campaign Spending Commission fined Thermal $31,000 earlier this year for improperly reimbursing members of the company's board of directors for campaign contributions they made. Most of the money went to Cayetano and Harris, and much smaller amounts went to others.

The commission has long been investigating whether the other companies reimbursed employees, and their relatives, for heavy contributions to Harris and others to evade strict limits on how much a single donor can give.

Attorney Michael Green said he represents a witness from the private sector, whom he declined to name. He said his client did not intend to testify yesterday but may at a later date, possibly if immunity was granted.

"The problem that comes up is that even if your client knows he did nothing wrong, and another witness for whatever reason accuses your client, prosecutors can decide to indict your client for perjury... ," Green said.

"I think it's incumbent that no one is tainted with the brush that the city is filled with corruption. ... If some evidence comes out that Jeremy knowingly did something wrong, I'd be very surprised."