Here we go again.

With a special legislative session expected to convene next week in an attempt to salvage Honolulu’s wildly over-budget and still far from finished rail system, another nebulous group has surfaced with a public relations blitz aimed at pushing lawmakers to dig deeper into the public’s pocket to keep the rail on track and fully funded in its original form.

A lot of these groups have popped up temporarily during the course of the long debate over the controversial rail system.

The latest, Friends of Rail, surfaced publicly last week when it released a new survey purporting to show widespread and deep support for the rail and, more specifically, for completing the system all the way to Ala Moana Center as originally planned.

East Kapolei End of HART rail guideway. Tilt shift lens used.

Honolulu’s $10 billion rail project is the largest construction project in state history and a boon to unions and contractors.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Friends of Rail website describes the group as “a grassroots organization formed to support the completion of Honolulu’s 20-mile, 21-station rail transit project.”

But there’s almost nothing grassroots about it. Instead, FOR appears to be a classic example of an “astroturf” group, one which makes phony claims about a grassroots base to cover its actual control by special interests, including well-funded corporations and unions, along with their public relations firms and varied consultants.

Special interest groups taking their message to the public is, of course, business as usual. But things get messy when groups emerge wielding big money to sway public opinion or, as in this case, the views of legislators, at the last minute, when there’s little time for the public to figure out who’s who.

Friends of Rail’s last minute appearance makes it difficult to know just who is behind the group, who is paying their bills, and what is being spent to shape policy in their own interests. It is really anything new or just same old, same old?

It’s important to know the financial backers of the Friends of Rail campaign. Most of the group’s members and supporters identified so far have direct financial stakes in completion of the rail project.

One result is that they may be more willing to accept continued unmitigated cost overruns as necessary to keeping the project, and their own financial interests, on track. By contrast,  the public might rightly see the overruns as a drag on personal and public finances. That’s why evaluating the issues being presented requires knowing the players.

Who’s Running This Show?

Friends of Rail describes itself as a nonprofit entity registered under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Such groups generally promote public policy issues which the IRS recognizes as promoting “the general welfare of the community.” By law, (c)(4) groups are considered tax exempt, but contributions to them are not tax deductible.

However, “Friends of Rail” turns out to be a trade name. It was registered by a different (c)(4) group, the Committee for Balanced Transportation, on March 1, 2017, state records show.

The latter group was registered to do business in Hawaii in 2005, at the beginning of the current rail planning. In 2008, when the question of whether or not to proceed with Honolulu’s proposed “steel wheel on steel rail” transit option was put to the voters, the committee registered the trade name “Go Rail Go”, which was prominent in the pro-rail campaign. 

The Committee for Balanced Transportation/Go Rail Go reported spending $429,000 in favor of rail in 2008, according to state campaign records.

The pro-rail forces prevailed on the ballot measure by a narrow margin, with a bare majority of 51.6 percentage of voters approving of the rail plan.

The Committee for Balanced Transportation has continued to register annually with the state, but does not appear to have had any ongoing activities.

Instead, it seems to be a legal shell that can be pulled off the shelf to be used by ad-hoc pro-rail groups as they are formed for specific campaigns. Shortly after the committee registered the “Friends of Rail” name with the state in March 2017, two of its three directors were replaced.  Those changes have not yet been reflected in official business registration records.

Ryan Akamine, an accountant who is listed in state records as president/director of the Committee for Balanced Transportation/Friends of Rail, is the only previous director who continues to serve.  Akamine could not be reached for comment this week.

The Honolulu rail project has been the subject of support and opposition, including during the past several elections.

John Hook/Civil Beat

An email inquiry to Friends of Rail was initially responded to, also via email, by Rebecca Soon, chief operations officer for Solutions Pacific LLC, a Honolulu consulting firm. The company is owned by Soon and her father, Ray Soon, according to state records.

The elder Soon stepped down at the end of March 2017 after 3-1/2 years as Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s chief of staff. Rebecca Soon is a former legislative aid to then-City Council Member Stanley Chang, and later was finance chair for Chang’s successful Senate race last year, and has been active in the Oahu Democratic Party. She has considerable background in project and business management, and community outreach.

Later, a more substantive response came from Emmanuel Zibakalam, who described himself as the spokesman for Friends of Rail.

Zibakalam owns his own consulting firm, Pacific Business Advocates LLC, and was recently selected for 2017’s Pacific Century Fellows Program, founded and still directed by former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.

Zibakalam said he is serving in a volunteer, unpaid capacity with Friends of Rail after being recruited several months ago by Akamine to serve as a director.

He identified the group’s third director as Katherine ‘Kaki’ Vessels, a 2016 graduate of the University of Hawaii law school who was also recruited in the past several  months. Vessels is currently employed at the Bays Lung Rose & Holma law firm, according to the current state Bar Directory. Vessels recently replaced Alicia Maluafiti, lobbyist and owner of Lo’ihi Communications.

Just A Few ‘Different Guys’

Zibakalam was vague on exactly how Friends of Rail operates. While the board provides “strategic planning,” the group does not have any paid staff running day-to-day  operations, he said.

“We have no paid staff per se,” he said, but instead rely on a public relations firm, along with “different guys that help out.” These individual “volunteers” come from groups that are members of Friends of Rail, including private companies and unions, Zibakalam said.

And help out they do.

For example, Friends of Rail was in the news last week when it released a new survey conducted by Anthology Research on public attitudes toward Honolulu’s rail project.  The survey was actually paid for by Laborers International Union of North America Local 368 and Operative Plasterers & Cement Masons Local 630, both listed as members of Friends for Rail.

“It was given to us by one of our members,” Zibakalam said, apparently referring to one of the unions.

Other organizations identified as members on the Friends of Rail website include the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, Hawaii Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, West Oahu Economic Development Association, and Faith Action for Community Equity. Only the latter really has any claim to legitimate grassroots.

Following The Money

The state lobbyist law, Chapter 97 HRS, requires disclosure by “any person” spending $1,000 or more during any reporting period communicating with legislators, directly or indirectly, to influence legislative action. The term “person” includes corporations, unions, associations, “or any other organization or a representative of a group of persons acting in concert.” Friends of Rail appears to fall in that category.

Contributions and expenditures to be reported, according to the disclosure law, include not only actual cash amounts, but also the value of any “a contract, promise, or agreement, whether or not enforceable,” to make a future contribution or expenditure.

Dan Gluck, ethics commission executive director, confirmed Tuesday that any groups spending $1,000 or more to influence the outcome of the special session  are subject to the disclosure requirements.

“Although organizations do not need to register as lobbyists—only individuals are considered lobbyists—they do have to disclose their lobbying expenditures and contributions,” Gluck said.

Zibakalam wasn’t able to say when Friends of Rail was actually formed and began planning for the special session, saying he has only been involved since Akamine reached out to him “a couple of months ago.” He said the group does not have anyone lobbying legislators on its behalf, although member organizations may have their own lobbyists.

Friends of Rail will instead focus on its public relations effort, including the current series of multi-media ads aimed to convince the public, and their elected representatives, that funding should not require any changes to the planned rail system.

How much money is being spent and where it comes from won’t become public until after the fact.

“We are going to be as transparent as we can,” Zibakalam said.

However, the deadline for filing those disclosure reports with the ethics commission isn’t until 30 days after the special session has adjourned.

All votes will have been taken, and the funding issue likely decided, well before the public has any opportunity to know how much money has been spent by special interests to sway the legislature’s decision in their favor.

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