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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 26, 2005

Campaign probes will be well worth money

It's a good bet that the "pay to play" system of campaign contributions and government work that characterized state and local governments here for years added hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, to the cost of public business.

Those who wanted government work often felt they had to contribute generously to certain political campaigns to get those contracts. Some, as we have learned repeatedly over the past several months through various investigations, contributed too generously — beyond the limits of the law.

Now, according to reporters Ken Kobayashi and Robbie Dingeman, the current phase of such investigations is coming to an end.

Critics point out that for all the sound and fury and some $700,000 in expenses, only one felony prosecution resulted.

Perhaps more striking: No public official was charged or convicted and, with the investigation winding down, it appears unlikely any will.

The 49 individuals or entities who were prosecuted were granted deferred acceptance of no-contest pleas, which means they will eventually be able to clear their record. Substantial civil fines were levied by the Campaign Spending Commission for illegal contributions, but only about $19,000 of those fines has actually been collected, the commission says.

William McCorriston, lawyer for former Mayor Jeremy Harris, is one of those who contends the effort was a waste of time and money. Harris, he told The Advertiser, was unfairly targeted "when every person on the street knows this has been happening for years."

That's no excuse. If the investigations, coupled with the work of the Campaign Spending Commission, end an illegal practice that's been "happening for years," it is money well spent.

It's been argued that this aggressive contributing was not for purposes of "buying" government work; rather it was to keep the playing field level and preserve a system that was sympathetic to local contractors.

No matter. It was wrong under the law and wrong because it eroded public confidence in government and governance.

Now that this system has, arguably, been broken, what next?

The easiest solution would be to ban the giving, or accepting, of campaign contributions from any individual or business that does government work. The Legislature took a small step in that direction this session.

Some might argue a complete ban could run into First Amendment free-speech rights. But limits on contributions, if not outright bans, have already been upheld as constitutional both locally and at the federal level.

There is another straightforward and simple solution: All it will take is for our public elected officials to take a pledge not to solicit or accept any campaign contributions from those who do government work.

Who will go first?