- Special Projects
The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii pulled off a little-noticed coup by the time this year’s legislative session was barely a week old.
During the seven-week period from the beginning of December through first week of the 2014 session, two top chamber officials — who also serve as the organization’s registered lobbyists — were reported to be in charge of fundraising events for eight key House leaders, including Speaker Joe Souki, majority leader Scott Saiki, and the chair and vice-chair of the powerful House Finance Committee, Reps. Sylvia Luke and Scott Nishimoto.
Tickets for the Chamber-organized fundraisers ranged from $100 to $300 per person, according to notices filed with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.
We’re accustomed to lobbyists making campaign contributions, and working the corridors and the railing at the State Capitol, while trying to steer legislation in their clients’ favor. Cozying up to legislative leaders by taking charge of their campaign fundraising events appears to be something different, requiring a closer and more direct tie between lobbyist and campaign than what has been traditional.
It’s also a form of influence that, until relatively recently, would have been difficult to track. No special disclosure is required when lobbyists take on a campaign role by officially shouldering fundraising responsibilities for candidates. The State Ethics Commission, which is responsible for the registration and regulation of lobbyists, doesn’t track such things.
Campaigns are required to file notices of fundraising events with the campaign spending commission, which can now be tracked using a searchable database which is publicly available through the state’s data portal, data.hawaii.gov. This has made tracking fundraisers, their locations, and the persons responsible for each event, a simple matter.
Whether, or to what extent, the chamber’s legislative agenda will benefit by its involvement in campaign fundraising, remains to be seen.
The first Chamber of Commerce event, held at the HASR Bistro in downtown Honolulu on Dec. 5, 2013, was a joint fundraiser for Reps. Luke, Nishimoto, and Saiki, with a suggested contribution of up to $300 per person. Chamber president Sherry Menor-McNamara, who last year became the first woman to lead the business advocacy group, was in charge of the event.
This is Menor-McNamara’s first legislative session as president of the chamber, but she previously served as its chief lobbyist. This is also the first year the Chamber has introduced a package of bills to push its business perspective, perhaps explaining the chamber’s full-court press with House leadership.
Another joint fundraiser followed on Jan. 13, 2014, just days before the session opened. This event, held at Murphy’s Bar & Grill, benefited the campaigns of Rep. Henry Aquino, House majority policy leader, along with assistant majority leader Ty Cullen and House Transportation Committee chair Ryan Yamane. Tickets to the event went for a suggested $100.
Former Rep. Pono Chong, who went through the Capitol’s revolving door after losing his 2012 re-election bid, was named Vice President of Business Advocacy and lobbyist for the chamber last August. Chong was reported to be the person in charge of this fundraiser, the first of three events he handled for the Chamber.
A $200 per person fundraiser on Jan. 17 for Rep. Mark Nakashima, chair of the House Labor & Public Employment Committee, was also held at Murphy’s.
And on Jan. 22, just a week into the session, Chong was the point person for a $300 per person fundraiser for House Speaker Joe Souki, this time back at HASR Bistro.
The Chamber’s lobbyists, while they’ve been most active, are not the only ones getting onto the fundraiser track.
Campaign records show Alicia Maluafiti, who represents several companies and trade associations with interests in biotech, was in charge of a fundraiser at Ruth’s Chris Steak House for Sen. Roz Baker, chair of the Senate’s Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee and vice-chair of the Health Committee. Tickets to the Dec. 9, 2013 event went for a suggested $500.
Baker’s campaign spending report lists just two contributions received on that date, including $2,787.62 from condominium management firm Hawaii First Inc., and $500 from the Florida-based WellCare Pac. Baker’s campaign booked another 13 contributions totaling $8,475 a week later.
Maluafiti followed with a Dec. 18 joint fundraiser for Sens. Michelle Kidani, vice-chair of the Ways & Means and Education committees, and Clarence Nishihara, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Tickets to this event at Roy’s Restaurant (“Dare to Indulge”) in Ko Olina, also went for a suggested $500.
Attorney Mitchell Imanaka, registered lobbyist for the Turtle Bay Resort and several other time-share companies, also ran a fundraiser for Rep. Luke on Nov. 21, 2013. The $500 per person event was held at the Luana Hills Country Club in Maunawili.
Luke reported a single $1,000 contribution on that day from Pacific Links Hawaii, the course owner, with seven additional contributions totaling $5,500 received a week later.
Several lobbyists I spoke with said the only difference is that the Chamber has put its campaign fundraising out in the open and on the record.
They say it isn’t uncommon for organizations, or individual lobbyists, to invite members and friends to an informal event — even into a lobbyist’s home — where campaign contributions are solicited for candidates. The result is the same — lobbyists become campaign fundraisers — but in a way that has avoided public disclosure, and has the potential to be more dangerous as a result.
The Chamber should get credit, one lobbyist suggested, for bringing the practice out of the shadows.
I think there’s truth to that perspective, as far as it goes.
Several states, including California, ban all campaign contributions by lobbyists. But lobbyists have been getting around that California ban by hosting small fundraising gatherings at their homes, collecting contributions from others while avoiding giving anything directly themselves, a practice which has come under public scrutiny this year.
It seems clear to me that if we want to lessen the undue influence of special interest money in politics, the public needs to assert more control over the money flowing from lobbyists and their clients to candidates and their campaigns. Lobbyists already enjoy a natural advantage over the general public in legislative matters by virtue of their professional skills and full-time attention to politics, an advantage many would say is unfair and contrary to principles of democracy.
When lobbyists become campaign fundraisers, whether by assuming formal, public roles as the Chamber of Commerce has done, or by organizing informal fundraising events where proceeds are bundled to benefit their clients’ interests, it only increases the corrosive effect of money on politics.
The Chamber of Commerce has, perhaps unintentionally, helped to shine a public light on the practice. For that, I thank them.
Read Ian Lind’s blog at iLind.net.