The Pacific Resource Partnership dishes out the hits. But the question is can it take a punch?

Over the past six months, PRP has spent $1.3 million to advertise on local TV stations, which is more than any other campaign in the primary election.

Much of this money has gone toward skewering former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, who’s vowed to stop Honolulu’s controversial $5.26 billion rail project if he’s elected mayor.

Several of PRP’s most pointed accusations have been discredited by local pundits and political insiders, however. Some have even called PRP’s ads mean-spirited.

For the most part, PRP ignored calls to stop the negative campaign. That was until Cayetano was hospitalized this week, and PRP Executive Director John White issued a statement saying the commercials would be suspended. As of Monday evening, some were still airing.

But prior to Cayetano falling ill, PRP pushed through the criticism and continued to run the spots, ensuring the group would remain a central player in the heated mayoral race.

The extra scrutiny that has come with being a powerhouse, though, has made PRP uncomfortable. Now White is the one saying others aren’t playing fair.

An Elusive Interview

PRP is a consortium of union carpenters and contractors who work to improve business in their industry.

In January 2011, White was named as the head of PRP when he was 35 years old, replacing outgoing executive director Kyle Chock who left to become the president of Bishop Holdings Corp.

Prior to that, White was the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono. He quit to run an unsuccessful campaign against current Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin in 2010. White lost by 47 votes.

He’s now deeply involved in the race for mayor, where Cayetano is duking it out with Carlisle and former Honolulu managing director Kirk Caldwell, both of whom are pro-rail candidates.

While White has been quick to point the finger at Cayetano and his supporters — in particular local contractor Dennis Mitsunaga — he doesn’t seem to like it when the spotlight is on PRP.

In fact, when Civil Beat contacted PRP to set up an interview with White, a public relations representative called back to find out what the story was about. She said PRP has been “very sensitive” to the recent “negative” media coverage, including a Civil Beat Fact Check that critiqued an I Mua Rail commercial.

White followed up with his own phone call and email, saying an objective view of PRP isn’t possible during the mayor’s race with rail on the line. He wanted the story to look at all the other work PRP is involved with outside of rail and the mayor’s race.

PRP has also been involved in other contentious projects on Oahu, including pushing for the approval of the Koa Ridge and Hoopili developments. It’s also a supporter of building a “Thirty Meter Telescope” at Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

“While we appreciate Civil Beat’s interest in PRP, we feel the current political environment would inhibit an objective view of our organization,” White said in his email. “If a profile of PRP is still of interest to you after the general election, we would be happy to meet with you to talk about the history of PRP, as well as current and future initiatives that contribute to (the) health of our state’s economy and improve the quality of life for Hawaii residents.”

This is a new approach for White, who usually makes himself available for interviews even if the subject matter isn’t flattering.

When Civil Beat reported White was the subject of a Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission inquiry into his expenditures during the 2010 council race, he responded quickly, saying that everything he did was “above board.”

He has since provided more information to the Campaign Spending Commission and officials say it seems to substantiate his assertion. They are still talking with him, however, about other issues, although they say there is currently no investigation.

White has also discussed the structure of PRP’s independent expenditure committee, which according to the most recent filings has raised and spent more money than any single mayoral candidate in the race.

Even though he refused to reveal specific details about who was funding I Mua Rail and the PRP PAC — the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund is the only donor — White acknowledged and commented on the novelty of his campaign.

“I recognize that there hasn’t been an effort quite like this before,” he said.

Hawaii’s own Super PAC

PRP’s spending has drawn a lot of interest, not only from the local media but also from the Campaign Spending Commission.

The group is the biggest single spender in the Aug. 11 primary election, even outpacing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has put about $732,000 into advertisements supporting Republican Linda Lingle, who is running for U.S. Senate.

Questions have also come up about PRP’s independent expenditure committee, which essentially makes it Hawaii’s version of a Super PAC.

It can raise an unlimited amount of money and use those funds to support or attack political candidates so long as there isn’t coordination with another campaign.

Think Citizens United, Karl Rove and American Crossroads.

This is where Read Ben’s Record and all the allegations of illegal campaign contributions and “pay-to-play” come from.

PRP also has its own version of a “dark money” group in I Mua Rail. Since that advertising arm doesn’t advocate for a candidate or ballot measure it can keep its donors secret.

But now there are allegations from Cayetano that PRP has coordinated with Mayor Peter Carlisle’s campaign, something that would violate campaign spending laws. Both PRP and Carlisle’s camps have denied any wrongdoing, and the Campaign Spending Commission has yet to receive a complaint or open an inquiry.

There also appears to be a blurring of the line between political speech and issue advocacy, especially considering that support for the rail project is essentially a vote against Cayetano.

And of course, there are the ads, many of which have been labeled misleading or inaccurate.

As of Friday, there were only eight registered independent expenditure committees in the state. Of those, PRP has been the most active, spending more than $1 million, almost all of that on advertising.

The next closest in terms of spending was AiKea, which is linked to the Local 5 hotel workers union. AiKea spent $37,564.69 from January 1 to July 27, mostly to pay canvassers.

Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao said she’s asked PRP to give her agency an itemized breakdown of its expenditures. Currently, PRP’s disclosure report shows lump sums going to various advertising, mailing and and polling firms.

Izumi-Nitao said she wants this extra detail because the law requires that a “reasonable person” should be able to read the expenditure report and determine who the intended recipient is and why that purchase was made. Once completed, she said people should be able to see which TV and radio stations PRP paid for advertising.

“This request is actually across the board,” Izumi-Nitao said. “PRP is one of many that we’re telling has to go back and break it down further.”

She also noted that PRP is the closest iteration of what’s happening nationally in politics. Lots of money and lots of ads. Because of this and the fact that rail is such a visceral issue, she suspects there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny of PRP.

“Even on the national level independent expenditure committees are in the foray in this election, and I think it’s fair for all of us to review at the end of the election cycle what impact they had,” Izumi-Nitao said. “Right now we’re right in the thick of it. Will (the independent expenditure committees) make a difference? Well, that’s what we’ll find out in the general election. It’s hard for anyone at this point to assess their impact other than whether they’re getting a lot of money or whether they’re spending a lot of money.”

Former Governor Weighs In

Some have already formed their opinions about PRP. They don’t like it.

Ben Cayetano knew when he entered the mayoral race he’d have to compete with the pro-rail groups like PRP and Move Oahu Forward. On more than one occasion he said he believed he’d be outspent 10 to 1.

What’s surprised him, though, is the persistence and ferocity of the attacks by PRP. It even got to the point where he called on some old friends to defend him, including former Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Bob Watada, who flew in from Oregon to discredit PRP’s claims involving illegal donations given to Cayetano’s gubernatorial campaign.

PRP has also gone after one of Cayetano’s biggest supporters, Dennis Mitsunaga, who has long been at the center of “pay-to-play” allegations but never charged with anything or found guilty of wrongdoing.

This led to a counterattack from Mitsunaga, who along with his daughter Lois Mitsunaga started running radio spots calling for PRP to get rid of White.

Dennis Mitsunaga continued his assault on Monday, releasing a new ad criticizing White for not understanding “the ways of aloha and respect in our islands.”

“There is no excuse for smears, lies and name calling. This is not how we behave in Hawaii,” Mitsunaga said in his ad. “More importantly it’s a shame that PRP has spent so much of their members’ money on this type of negative messaging. Perhaps the trustees can find a new director who has more aloha and can restore the integrity of the union.”

Cayetano has urged the same. In a recent interview with Civil Beat, he said he doesn’t remember PRP taking part in personal attacks in the past the same way it has against him today.

While he places much of the blame for this on White, he said there’s something bigger at stake in this fight. Honolulu’s $5.26 billion light rail system.

“There’s never been a project like this,” Cayetano said. “This is the biggest project ever in this state’s history and so the union, I think, has drunk the Kool-Aid. They believe this is going to bring a lot of jobs.”

Who’s Behind PRP?

The Pacific Resource Partnership is a collaboration between local contractors and Hawaii’s largest construction union, the Hawaii Carpenters Union Local 745.

That union has more than 6,700 members, and is one of the richest in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. It has more than $39 million in assets, a figure that has jumped from $5.3 million in 2000.

PRP was established in 1979 by the union and local contractors with the purpose of promoting and increasing their share of work around the state. It’s funded by both the contractors and union workers who are members.

Over the years PRP has evolved to include education, training and inspection programs. But it’s also heavily involved in politics, with lobbying efforts at both the state and county level.

From Jan. 1, 2009 to April 30, 2012, PRP has spent $43,675 on lobbying, according to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. It also has registered lobbyists with the city and county of Honolulu.

City records show that one of PRP’s lobbyists, Bennette Misalucha, was also a public relations subcontractor on the rail project. Misalucha had been at the center of recent controversy involving her lobbying efforts for rail and was recently let go.

Bruce Coppa, Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s chief of staff, was the head of PRP from 1993 to 2004. He said the main goal of the organization while he was there was to find ways to stimulate the economy.

“Really the focus of PRP was to look at the things that affected the everyday men and women of Hawaii,” Coppa said. “I think our greatest accomplishment was that PRP was recognized as a leader in being able to pull together the Hawaii Carpenters Union and the union contractors to unite them on initiatives that are beneficial to all people of Hawaii.”

One area PRP focused on, he said, was education. Representatives would go to schools and speak with classes about the skills needed to succeed in the construction industry, whether it’s architecture and engineering or milling a tree and building molds.

Advertising and lobbying were also a part of the territory, Coppa said, specifically referring to the group’s strong support for the Hawaii Convention Center.

He also remembers the carpenters fighting for the rail project in the 1990s, when it was estimated to cost around $1 billion. He described the union members as being “very aggressive.”

“Arnold Morgado, he was the (Honolulu) council chair and he was against transit, and they went after him,” Coppa said. “They had a banner on the H1 freeway overpass where it said, ‘This traffic brought to you by Arnold Morgado.’”

There was a lot on the line back then, and the same is true today. In addition to building the actual steel-on-steel elevated system, new homes and businesses are expected to sprout up around the rail line as part of a push for transit-oriented development.

“The rail, truth be told, has a lot of carpenter work because all the forms that are used, the molds are made by carpenters,” Coppa said. “That’s the heart and soul of it.”

As for what tactics he would employ to ensure the rail project didn’t disappear for another two decades, Coppa wouldn’t say. He also wouldn’t comment on PRP’s current methods.

“Being one of the largest projects in the state there’s a lot at stake for the people PRP represents,” Coppa said. “This strategy might work. I don’t know what strategy I would have used. It’s a tough one, and now it’s gotten very political. It is what it is. I guess we’ll see in a couple days.”

The election is Saturday, and if Cayetano wins more than 50 percent of the vote he takes over as mayor. At that point it’s a matter of seeing how much power he truly has to stop the rail project, which has already broken ground.

A new Civil Beat poll has Cayetano winning the primary outright, with 51 percent of the vote. If he doesn’t win on Aug. 11, the top two vote-getters move onto the general election.

Follow the Money

In the meantime, PRP can continue its dual-pronged approach with I Mua Rail and Read Ben’s Record. While $1 million seems like a lot of money, there could be plenty more in the PRP coffers.

PRP’s independent expenditure committee gets all of its money from the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund, which was established in 1989.

According to the the fund’s tax filings from 2010, it received $3.4 million in revenues that year while spending about $1.9 million. Its reported net assets were more than $17 million, about $12 million of which was listed as being held in “publicly traded securities.”

PRP’s influence, though, goes beyond campaign contributions. It’s also connected.

PRP Pedigree

Coppa was the head of PRP for 11 years. He was also the chief executive officer of one of Hawaii’s largest public relations firms, Communications Pacific, for five years and then was nominated to become Hawaii’s comptroller. Today, he has a direct line to the governor.

Kyle Chock preceded White. He’s now the president of Bishop Holdings Corp., which is a subsidiary of Hawaii’s largest landowner, Kamehameha Schools.

Chock, who did not return messages, is also the chair of the of State Land Use Commission. He was appointed to that position in 2007 by former Gov. Linda Lingle. In June, he voted to approve Hoopili, a 12,000-home master-planned community in West Oahu that PRP supported. He is one of nine members on the board and his term expires in 2014.

White is not without his own political ambitions. He once told a Civil Beat reporter he planned to run for governor some day. He also has relationships in high places, including with U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, who is trying to claim retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka’s seat.

Hirono’s camp, which has its own skirmish to worry about, only responded with a two-sentence statement about White when asked about him.

“John White joined Congresswoman Hirono as Chief of Staff in mid-2008 and worked there for about 18 months,” Deputy Campaign Manager Carolyn Tanaka said. “During his tenure he did a great job working for the people in the 2nd Congressional District.”

But although many look at White as a potential bright light in Hawaii politics, similar to Lt. Governor Brian Schatz and Honolulu City Council Member Tulsi Gabbard, who is running for Congress, today he’s on an island.

PRP’s in the middle of a nasty fight. And although White’s method of using attack ads isn’t necessarily a new tactic, there’s a sensitivity here about whether they contradict Hawaii’s aloha spirit.

Will It Work?

But ultimately, the question PRP and White need to ask themselves is simple. If they beat Cayetano, will it have all been worth it?

For the contractors and carpenters who get the jobs that answer is undeniably yes.

The same is true for White. If he ever decides to reach higher, the fact that he ran a Super PAC and slung mud at a former governor won’t matter as much as the number of union jobs he created.

That support can get you far in Hawaii, even if memories are long. That’s because the unions here still hold sway.

But if you have any doubt about what PRP’s role is in the campaign, turn the question around.

What would you do for $5.26 billion dollars?

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