UPDATED 5/23/2012 9:45 p.m.

No more Mr. Nice Guys.

Forget ginned-up indignity about disrespecting Hawaii’s senior senator. On the eve of the first televised debate in the 2012 mayoral campaign, the Pacific Resource Partnership on Wednesday launched a two-pronged attack against anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano.

The construction union advocacy group released part of an internal poll showing support for the Honolulu rail project has increased in recent months while support for Cayetano has dipped. A few hours later, the group reminded reporters about years-old reports of illegal campaign contributions and a “pay-to-play culture” that dogged Cayetano after he left the governor’s mansion.

“We are telling voters: Remember who Cayetano was,” PRP Executive Director John White told Civil Beat this afternoon. “And as you make a decision for mayor, you have to look at a person’s record. It’s appropriate, it’s fair, and there are parts of the governor’s record that he has to answer for.”

Cayetano campaign co-chair Charlyn Honda Masini called the campaign contribution and no-bid contract allegations “red herrings.”

She said Cayetano wasn’t available to comment Wednesday afternoon because he was preparing for the debate. UPDATE After the debate, she provided a comment from Cayetano:

The poll was commissioned by Pacific Resources Partnership, the entity which supports Peter Carlisle. PRP has been running a “push poll” to smear me. So I have no confidence that anything it does is credible. Moreover, the poll result is inconsistent with polls taken by the StarAdvertiser, Civil Beat and other polls we’ve seen. Ultimately, the final decision will be made on Election Day.

The opening salvo Wednesday were the results of an internal PRP poll. The question about rail subtly encouraged support — “Now as you may know, a few years ago voters approved the Honolulu Rail Transit project connecting East Kapolei with Ala Moana Center in Honolulu. Do you currently support or oppose this project?”

Forty-six percent of likely primary voters said they’re in favor of the project and 49 percent said they’re opposed to rail. PRP had asked the same question before. In May 2011, 44 percent supported rail and 54 percent opposed. In January of this year, the gap narrowed to 44 percent in support and 52 percent opposed.

In February, The Civil Beat Poll found 34 percent in favor versus 55 percent opposed, but our question was slightly different: “This is a crucial year for Honolulu’s rail project. We would like to know your views about the rail project. First, do you support or oppose construction of the 20-mile elevated rail project from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana shopping center?”

PRP also asked about preference in the mayoral race. Its January poll showed that Cayetano led with 38 percent versus 29 percent for Peter Carlisle and 18 percent for Kirk Caldwell. The new poll had a 33-30-21 split, a statistical dead heat between Cayetano and Carlisle.

In March, The Civil Beat Poll pegged the race at 53 percent for Cayetano, 21 percent for Carlisle and 17 percent for Caldwell.

White declined to share the full questionnaire, saying it included proprietary research questions. But he did say that the poll told voters about illegal campaign contributions to Cayetano when he was the state’s governor and pay-to-play no-bid contracts. Here’s the text of that question:

Now, I would like to read you some statements made by opponents (of) Ben Cayetano for Mayor. For each statement, please tell me whether it raises very serious doubts, serious doubts, minor doubts, or no real doubts in your own mind about Ben Cayetano for Mayor.

While governor, Cayetano accepted nearly five hundred thousand dollars in illegal campaign contributions. Many of the donors of these illegal contributions later received millions of dollars in no-bid contracts from the state. When authorities discovered this illegal activity, they required Cayetano to pay the money back, but he used a loophole in the law to avoid giving it back.

Does this raise very serious doubts, serious doubts, minor doubts, or no real doubts in your own mind about Ben Cayetano for Mayor?

Earlier this month, Cayetano said PRP was conducting “push polling” against him. White said Wednesday it’s not push polling because it’s true and because the primary purpose of the poll was to test messaging and gauge voter opinion, not to “distribute rumors, lies and innuendo.”

“The poll we did do did test portions of Cayetano’s records that we can prove, portions that Cayetano has to answer for,” White said.

PRP shared with reporters documents backing up its claims of illegal campaign contributions and old news stories backing up the claims about pay-to-play politics.

“Everything that we’ve said is verifiable,” White said. “I believe it is incredibly fair and appropriate to raise his record up. He could very well do the same thing again today. That is why we’re bringing it up. You cannot dismiss a person’s record, especially for someone who’s touting their record as a reason they should be elected to an office.”

White said the question about illegal contributions came after the mayoral question and thus did not impact the results.

“What you see is without any mention of Cayetano’s record, Carlisle’s record or Caldwell’s record,” he said. “After people know about Cayetano’s record, they tend not to vote for him.”

Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission General Counsel Gary Kam told Civil Beat Wednesday that the Friends of Cayetano Campaign was indeed told to pay the state more than $500,000 in the years after he was governor. But he said it’s not accurate to characterize that as a debt or a penalty and said the fact that Cayetano never paid back that money does not mean he exploited a loophole.

“I don’t think it’s a loophole,” Kam said. “Someone is penalized and that’s the contributor who made the false-name contribution, because they knew.”

The assumption, he said, is that the campaign does not know when it’s received a false-name contribution or a contribution in excess of the legal limit. Because CSC investigations can take months or years, the money is often long gone before campaigns are told to turn it over.

“They don’t have the funds any more because they spent it because they’re running a campaign,” Kam said, speaking generally and not specifically about Cayetano. “They don’t know that it’s false-name contributions. They don’t know that ‘$10,000 or $15,000 are false names and I’d better set it aside.’ So whenever we notify them, whatever their balance is at that time, that’s the balance. They just pay whatever they have.”

Kam said Cayetano’s campaign owed the state $531,969,32 when he shuttered the committee after retiring from public office. And when he opened his mayoral campaign, that doesn’t carry over because it’s not technically a debt.

Former Mayor Jeremy Harris was supposed to pay back even more — $915,432 — for similar illegal contributions, according to Kam.

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