UPDATED 7/9/2012 5:45 P.M.

When does being a candidate become your primary job?

That’s the underlying question Tulsi Gabbard is asking voters to contemplate. On Monday, she filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission asking for an investigation into what she says are “direct and serious” violations of campaign spending laws by rival Mufi Hannemann.

At issue is Hannemann’s alleged failure to include expenses like campaign trips to neighbor islands and Guam in his disclosure reports filed with the FEC late last year and earlier this year. The trips could have been connected to Hannemann’s job as CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, which also has put him in advertisements and otherwise kept him in the public eye.

“We are a country of laws, not of men, no matter how powerful. And this undeniable evidence that we’re submitting to the Federal Elections Commission shows that Mufi Hannemann has consciously and knowingly conspired with powerful forces at HLTA to circumvent federal election laws,” Gabbard said at Monday afternoon press conference in front of the federal building in downtown Honolulu. The complaint was filed by a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer on Gabbard’s behalf.

UPDATED Hannemann spokesman Tyler Dos Santos-Tam said in an email Monday afternoon that the campaign is “confident that the FEC will find these allegations to be frivolous and false. Mufi Hannemann’s work on behalf of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association is above reproach.”

“These charges are coming from a campaign that is trailing in the polls in the last few weeks before the election,” he wrote. “This is merely an attempt to distract from the first major debate of the campaign this Thursday, where the candidates will be discussing the real issues facing the voters of Hawaii’s 2nd District.”

The Civil Beat Poll found last month that Gabbard had overcome an early 45-point deficit to pull into a virtual dead heat with Hannemann. He responded by releasing his own internal polls that he said show him still holding a double-digit lead.

Gabbard alleges that Hannemann said in a September 2011 email to supporters that his “campaign has traveled to every county of the state” in the preceding weeks. Media reports detailed other inter-island campaign activity.

Hannemann’s quarterly report filed Oct. 15 did not include any mention of airfare or travel in the “itemized disbursements” section. The year-end report covering the last three months of 2011 includes numerous items detailing inter-island travel.

The next quarterly report for all federal candidates is due July 15. Gabbard declined to reveal her fundraising haul Monday.

She also says Hannemann has been campaigning full time for Congress, making it unlikely that he’s devoted the same amount of time to his full-time job at HLTA and unlikely “that he completed the normal amount of work required for his position.” Because of that, she says “all or part” of his HLTA salary — as well as the publicity he’s received because of his HLTA job — should be considered an illegal corporate contribution.

Hannemann announced his candidacy for the seat almost a year ago. Since then, he’s occasionally irked rivals in the Democratic primary by blurring the line between candidate and ordinary citizen. Most notably, his radio show, while not illegal, prompted some opponents to seek equal airtime.

With the latest charge, Gabbard is attempting to thread the eye of a very small needle, considering she also has a day job as a member of the Honolulu City Council. In late June, she skipped two City Council committee meetings on a Thursday, attended a Washington, D.C., fundraiser on a Friday and accepted an award in Iowa over the weekend. She’s a nonvoting member of the committees she missed.

At the press conference, Gabbard told Civil Beat there are key differences between her juggling act and Hannemann’s actions.

“First of all, the council as you know is a part-time job and I continue to fulfill my obligations on the City Council and also campaigning. I am following the law,” she said. “My point here is that clearly, as you’ll see in the complaint, as you’ll see in the exhibits, Mufi Hannemann is not only not following the law, he is knowingly not following the law.”

Hannemann wrote in his July 4 Midweek column that Monday would be the day he’s replaced as HLTA CEO by George Szigeti.

Here is the complaint and the full list of exhibits provided by Gabbard’s campaign:

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