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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2010

Past violators of Isle campaign spending laws continue giving

 •  Contractor-linked donations soar in Hawaii gubernatorial campaign

BY Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writer

"If they were fined and found guilty, they have paid their debt to society. We accept contributions that are legal and lawful."

BILL KANEKO | chairman of Abercrombie's campaign

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Major political donors that violated the state's campaign spending laws in past elections continue to contribute to the coffers of Hawai'i's gubernatorial candidates.

Between 2001 and 2006, the state Campaign Spending Commission issued fines of more than $1.8 million to 100 local architects, engineers and other donors for making illegal contributions to the campaigns of former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris and other Democrats.

During the same period, more than 30 political contributors agreed to plead no contest to criminal violations of Hawai'i's campaign finance laws.

An Advertiser study of more than 2,300 campaign contributions made during the second half of 2009 shows that Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann received about $100,000 from donors linked to past illegal campaign contributions. The amount is about 9.5 percent of the money he collected during the second half of 2009.

Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie received about $28,000, or about 3.4 percent of his second-half 2009 campaign collections, from individuals whose firms, co-workers or relatives made illegal campaign contributions in past elections.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the Republican candidate for governor, received just one contribution from a past campaign spending law violator for $1,000.

State law does not bar people who gave illegally in past elections from making political donations.

But experts say that contributions from past offenders raise questions about the effectiveness of Hawai'i's law banning state and city contractors from making direct contributions to local political candidates.

"The fines may have deterred much of the past illegal contributions, but the legal form of pay-to-play is still there," said former state Campaign Spending Commission executive directer Bob Watada, who spearheaded the 2001-05 investigations. "During my 32 years in government, that's the way it has always been."

Elisa Yadao, spokeswoman for Hannemann's gubernatorial exploratory committee, said the campaign has worked diligently to comply with state campaign laws by ensuring that donors don't exceed contribution limits and by making complete disclosures in the committee's campaign finance reports.

She declined to discuss individual donors.

Bill Kaneko, chairman of Abercrombie campaign, said that many of the individuals who were fined have paid their debt to society. Those individuals have a right to express their political views by providing support for candidates they like, he said.

"If they were fined and found guilty, they have paid their debt to society. We accept contributions that are legal and lawful," Kaneko said.

Some of the biggest offenders in past elections are among those giving money this election.

Michael Matsumoto, CEO of the engineering firm of SSFM International Inc., and his wife gave $6,700 to Abercrombie. Michael Matsumoto gave $6,000 to Hannemann.

In 2003, a state judge sentenced Matsumoto to 300 hours of community service after he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge that he funneled $140,000 to the Harris campaign through dozens of employees, relatives and friends.

That same year, he was fined a record $303,000 by the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Under state law, donors can give no more than $6,000 to a candidate for a statewide race and $4,000 for other races during a four-year election cycle. Contributors also are barred from giving money in the names of other individuals.

Matsumoto would not comment when asked about his donations.

Kaneko said that Matsu-moto's contributions to the Abercrombie campaign were legal.

"That happened years ago, and Mike has moved on and continues to do good work in the community," Kaneko said.

Hannemann's contributions include $2,000 from the chairman of his campaign chairman, Dean Okimoto, who himself was fined $500 by the state Campaign Spending Commission in 2004.

According to commission records, Okimoto made $400 in excessive contributions to Hannemann's unsuccessful run for mayor in 2000.

Okimoto said the contributions were due to an error on his part.

Okimoto said he personally contributed $3,900 to Hannemann's 2000 mayoral campaign but wasn't aware that the law required that a separate $500 corporate contribution by Nalo Farms to Hannemann in 2000 be included as his own.