- Special Projects
On May 5, 2012, Washington, D.C., media consultant Martin Hamburger sent an email to Pacific Resource Partnership Executive Director John White about former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano.
“Let’s give him a bad week,” Hamburger said.
Hamburger and PRP were about to launch an all-out political attack on Cayetano, who was running for Honolulu mayor on an anti-rail platform.
The plan was to paint him as a corrupt politician, and draw him into a public confrontation that would drain his resources and focus attention on his negative sides.
Hamburger pointed out that Cayetano had a penchant for fighting back against political attacks. The fact he was already taking swings at PRP — an elusive and not particularly well-known target — was even better.
“That’s bad strategic thinking,” Hamburger wrote. “He’s like Nixon saying, ‘I’m not a crook.’”
Hamburger’s email exchange with White and several other political operatives is among 488 pages of internal PRP communications that were obtained by Cayetano’s legal team as part of his defamation lawsuit against the organization.
PRP, an advocacy group for the Hawaii Carpenters Union and local contractors, spent more than $3 million through its political action committee in 2012 to methodically dismantle Cayetano’s campaign and keep Honolulu’s $5.26 billion rail project on track.
The emails provide an unprecedented glimpse of the behind-the-scenes operations of one of Hawaii’s most powerful independent expenditure committees. Such groups, also known as super PACs, are allowed to receive and spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.
But the emails show PRP was preparing its takedown of Cayetano many months before officially forming its PAC, testing messages, priming reporters and laying the framework for what would become one of the state’s most persistent and sophisticated attack operations.
The emails detail how PRP built its barrage of radio spots and TV ads around nearly $540,000 in illegal donations Cayetano had received from people using fake names during his 1998 gubernatorial campaign.
While Cayetano was never found to have violated any laws, PRP and its consultants pushed a storyline that the funds were linked to a “pay-to-play” political culture during his administration in which major donors received no-bid contracts.
PRP also tried to convince voters that Cayetano had taken advantage of a loophole in campaign spending law to avoid paying back the full amount he received in illegal donations.
Together these components were part of PRP’s “corruption attack,” which is how one of the group’s pollsters described it in the communications.
It took a long time for the target of the PRP’s strategy to fully grasp what happened.
“When I read those emails I was shocked because I understood clearly what their strategy was,” Cayetano told Civil Beat. “I’ve been accused of many, many things in an election but never of being corrupt.”
Cayetano filed a libel and slander lawsuit against PRP in October 2012, just weeks before the November general election.
One of his goals was to find out who was behind the attacks, which he still believes played a major role in catapulting his opponent, Kirk Caldwell, into the mayor’s office.
“The reporters would then likely take the negatives back to Cayetano, and I would expect a frothing Ben to explode.” — Andy Winer
Cayetano was running on an anti-rail platform, which made him a target for PRP from the first day he announced his candidacy. Both of his opponents, incumbent Peter Carlisle and Caldwell, were outspoken proponents of the project.
With the lawsuit, Cayetano said he wanted to put Caldwell under oath to see if there was any coordination with PRP, something Caldwell’s campaign denied after PRP ran footage of Caldwell in one its ads.
But the former governor’s defamation case never made it that far. Cayetano settled with PRP recently in exchange for a public apology and two donations, one to the University of Hawaii medical school for $100,000 and another to the Hawaiian Humane Society for $25,000.
While neither side is allowed to talk specifically about the settlement, Cayetano’s attorney, Jim Bickerton, said there was no agreement to keep the emails confidential.
Bickerton said he obtained the emails as part of his pre-trial investigation, but that he couldn’t reveal his source. He said they became the “road map” for the lawsuit against PRP, allowing him to ask targeted questions of the defense and telling him who specifically he should add to his witness list.
Although the case settled before anyone was questioned under oath, Bickerton said revealing the names of the consultants behind the attacks on Cayetano is still a victory. Bickerton provided a copy of the emails to Civil Beat.
“There’s a saying my kids say that if you can name them you can shame them,” Bickerton said. “And now we have names. We know who did this. That’s not to take anything away from PRP’s responsibility. But there’s no way to take that away from these consultants.”
John White might have been the face of PRP, but his supporting cast played key roles in crafting its messaging. It included Andy Winer, who is described in the emails as a “General Consultant” to PRP.
Winer is a well-known Democratic operative in Hawaii. At the time he was working on Mazie Hirono’s U.S. Senate campaign. He’s currently U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s chief of staff.
The emails indicate Winer was a guiding force behind PRP’s push to take out Cayetano, and he was a party to nearly every email discussion in the 488 pages. He was already familiar with Hawaii’s political landscape, and with Cayetano.
But the emails also indicate that he was aware of the fine line PRP was walking in its attacks on Cayetano.
For instance, in June 2012 as PRP was about to hit the airwaves with negative ads targeting the illegal contributions made to Cayetano’s 1998 campaign, Winer sent an email to White and the other consultants seeking a “subtle but important” revision to the scripts.
“The voice over for both scripts says that Cayetano kept the money,” Winer wrote in the June 11 email. “In thinking about this more, one interpretation is that he kept the illegal contributions from his 1998 campaign, which is not correct. He actually turned over all of his remaining campaign funds ($8,000) when he closed his prior campaign account.
“The loophole is that Cayetano opened a new account, is accepting contributions, and he isn’t paying back what he owed from before. Thus, it is more accurate to say, that he is keeping the money as opposed to saying he kept the money. I know this sounds nitpicky, but, factually, it is correct, and I think we should consider that minor revision to both voiceovers.”
Winer was particularly taken with the idea Cayetano was using a “loophole” in Campaign Spending Commission law to avoid paying back the full amount of money he had received from donors who gave over the legal limit.
But Winer struggled to gain traction on this point, writing in a May 24 email that both Campaign Spending Commission attorney Gary Kam and former Civil Beat reporter Michael Levine “did not understand what we are claiming is the loophole.”
“This is the first time that a candidate who owed funds shut down a committee account and is reopening a new campaign committee account,” Winer wrote. “It is abusive and offensive to allow somebody to walk away from prior debt by essentially declaring political bankruptcy.
“Also, I heard yesterday that a third party not affiliated with PRP in any way may have filed a complaint with the Campaign Spending Commission making this argument. I will have my hands on the complaint by 10:00 am this morning.”
Levine wasn’t the only reporter not to bite on PRP’s narrative that Cayetano was using a loophole. Several other journalists, including Honolulu Star Advertiser columnist Richard Borreca and investigative blogger Ian Lind, also questioned PRP’s use of the term.
“Even if the senator disagreed with Ben’s position on rail he would never condone the type of activity that went on.” — Jennifer Sabas, former chief of staff to Sen. Dan Inouye.
PRP enlisted the help of several consultants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work. Major players included San Francisco-based pollster Ben Tulchin, high-profile political strategist and opposition researcher Jason Stanford, of Austin, Texas, and Hamburger.
Direct mail messaging was handled by Mission Control out of Connecticut while the social media front was the responsibility of Trilogy Interactive.
Local media consultants Barbara Tanabe and Jim McCoy, of Hoakea Communications, were also in the inner circle. They, too, were named in Cayetano’s defamation lawsuit.
Data from the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission show PRP spent more than $650,000 on these consultants during the 2012 campaign.
The data does not mention Winer, Stanford or Hoakea Communications.
The first expenses from PRP came on May 21, 2012, according to the group’s campaign finance reports, although work had already begun many months prior.
PRP also had a pro-rail group, called I Mua Rail, that advocated for the project but did not focus on specific candidates, meaning it did not have to file any reports with the campaign spending commission.
Many of the main consultants involved with PRP either did not return calls or declined to comment, including Winer, Stanford and Tanabe. White also declined to comment through a PR firm representative.
McCoy, however, highlighted just how important PRP’s job was during the 2012 election, saying it was all about keeping rail alive.
“From what I can gather Ben based his whole campaign on, ‘I’m going to stop rail,’” McCoy told Civil Beat. “If he was mayor today where would rail be?”
McCoy, who no longer works for Hoakea Communications, was trying to get current U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard elected to Congress in 2012 while at the same time working as a consultant for PRP.
The group definitely had the resources to make waves, he said, but he downplayed just how much of an influence money has on politics today.
“Of course if you have money you have the ability to get your message out,” McCoy said. “The question is what does money have to do with it? Of course, it’s a vehicle that’s a part of your arsenal, but it’s not everything.”
McCoy said he did nothing wrong in the course of his work with PRP. That’s why when he was offered the chance to settle the defamation case he took it.
PRP was able to lay the foundation for its attacks well before forming a super PAC and airing its first ads.
In February 2012, emails show Stanford was already digging into Cayetano’s past while also looking for connections between the anti-rail movement and conservative groups such as the tea party and CATO Institute.
By March and April, PRP was testing messages with local polling conducted by Tulchin Research.
On May 4, 2012, PRP launched BeNiceBen.com to highlight Cayetano’s criticism of then-U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye for being “out of touch.”
A May 4 email from White indicates that he was able to get the state’s largest employee union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, to send out the link to its 40,000-plus members.
PRP vehemently denied it was push polling, saying publicly that it was simply gauging community support for rail. What PRP was also doing, the emails show, was testing out messages it would then use against Cayetano.
PRP even considered sharing some of these poll results publicly to counter Cayetano’s claims and take shots at his credibility.
“At this point, knowing the poll results, what if we went to the reporters and also gave them a couple of the Cayetano negative statements we tested (illegal campaign contributions and pardons as a starter) with factual back-up info prepared by Jason?” Winer asked in a group email among PRP and its consultants.
“The reporters would then likely take the negatives back to Cayetano, and I would expect a frothing Ben to explode.”
“That degree of sophistication and coordination are made possible by these large black pools of money.” — Jim Bickerton
Other possibilities mentioned by Winer and McCoy included linking Cayetano’s claims of push polling to local conservatives who were suspected of using similar tactics in previous campaigns as a way to tell voters about “Ben’s alarming friends.”
But ultimately PRP decided to hold off on its best fodder.
“Andy, your plan (releasing some negatives with backup) should only happen in concert with a broader rollout or as a distraction,” Stanford said in a May 5 email. “That is, we shouldn’t use the good stuff separate from everything else we’re planning (and discussing next week), but using the bad stuff could divert them from what our real plans are.”
By the end of the month, PRP had released its poll results and with it resurrected decades-old allegations that he had fostered a “pay-to-play” culture.
It was off and running. But PRP and its consultants knew they had to be careful.
Tanabe sent an email to White and Winer on May 23 with talking points should White be questioned by the media.
“Reporters might ask about linking the campaign contributions to no-bid,” Tanabe wrote in her bullet-pointed email. “Do not respond (because we don’t have the facts). Instead, point out: That’s something that has been raised, and it’s up to the candidate to respond.”
Cayetano’s future as a candidate relied on getting anti-rail voters to the ballot box. He was already involved in a lawsuit to kill the project. His campaign pushed the message that rail would be a visual blight and a financial boondoggle.
But Cayetano refused to ignore PRP’s attacks — exactly what the group had hoped for. This is clear in the emails, especially when Cayetano called upon Bob Watada to come to his defense.
Watada was the former executive director of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission who uncovered a scheme in which contractors and their employees would donate large amounts of money to candidates in the hopes of getting future work from the government. He called this system “pay-to-play.”
Cayetano flew Watada in from his home in Oregon to defend the former governor from PRP’s attacks about the $540,000 in illegal campaign donations he received while running for re-election in 1998.
But PRP was prepared. It knew Cayetano planned to hold a press event with Watada and state Rep. Della Au Belatti to try to clear his name.
Cayetano had telegraphed his plan in an email to supporters, and also to someone who White described as a “well-known lobbyist, close to Gov. Abercrombie.”
That lobbyist was John Radcliffe, who sent an email to White on June 26. Radcliffe is one of the most influential people in Hawaii state politics, and has represented everyone from Monsanto and AT&T to Walmart and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly faculty union.
“Ben will no doubt have Bob Watada come out to Hawaii and defend Ben’s record,” Radcliffe told White. “Expect that very shortly. Be ready for it.”
The stakes were high. Anti-rail sentiment was strong and Cayetano had hopes of capturing more than 50 percent of the vote in the August primary to avoid a potential runoff.
Still, pay-to-play was clearly resonating with voters — even Gabbard began using it in her 2012 campaign — and PRP wasn’t ready to let it go.
“Reporters might ask about linking the campaign contributions to no-bid contracts. Do not respond (because we don’t have the facts.)” — Barbara Tanabe
“We need to stay on the front foot in this debate,” Tulchin wrote in a June 26 email. “It is the best hit we have so we cannot let them take it away or weaken it for us.”
The plan was to “plant” questions with reporters before Cayetano and Watada’s press conference to weaken their arguments.
PRP put together a dossier on Watada and his efforts to curb pay-to-play in Hawaii politics. PRP’s team also assembled questions for reporters along with quotes from Watada and Belatti from newspaper archives, the emails show.
It was similar to a tactic PRP employed before a televised debate in May when consultants discussed planting questions about the $540,000 in illegal campaign donations either through suggested questions that the moderators were gathering through social media or by directly contacting the moderators — all of whom were journalists.
“This is great, as BC is extending the story for us,” Tanabe said in a June 20 email after Cayetano first indicated he wanted to bring Watada to Hawaii.
“We should ‘plant’ reporter questions: if BC knew there were illegal campaign contributions, why didn’t he ask for an investigation after he was elected governor? … It was a massive amount of money and one can conclude that it was well organized. So why didn’t BC try to clean it up? And what did Bob Watada do about it? How could he ‘look the other way’ if he was a crusader for cleaner elections?
“Obviously, BC thinks bringing in Watada and having Della will shift the discussion. We can come up with a lot more questions for the trio.”
The plan worked. PRP sent out an email with questions for Watada to all the major news outlets, including Civil Beat, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hawaii News Now and KITV.
Cayetano even had to cut off Watada during his press conference as reporters fired questions at the former Campaign Spending director about pay-to-play during Cayetano’s administration.
PRP had kept the story alive, and Cayetano would be dogged by it throughout the election.
Even when voters seemed to be fed up with the attacks as the campaign wore on, PRP forged ahead.
On July 29, Tanabe told White and Winer that she and McCoy had been getting pushback about the negative ads and that people were getting turned off. But she also acknowledged that the pay-to-play message also cast the most doubt on Cayetano.
Winer’s response confirmed that PRP had no plans to back off. The negative ads, he said, worked well with undecided voters, which were still estimated to be about 20 percent. Cayetano was trying to take the entire election in the primary by capturing more than 50 percent of the vote.
“I believe that the negatives have put a halt to Cayetano’s momentum, but neither of the other two candidates have been able to break through,” Winer wrote. “This has a lot to do with rail, but it also doesn’t help that Carlisle hasn’t had the funds needed to run a vigorous media campaign (we understand he is going dark this week).
“Anyway, as long as we make it to the general we are in a good position to move past Ben pretty quickly.”
Despite the large volume of emails, there’s still a lot that only those on the inside know about how PRP executed its campaign.
Some people question whether PRP’s involvement was the only variable that kept Cayetano out of the Honolulu mayor’s office. In addition to its negative attacks on Cayetano, the organization did extensive canvassing and microtargeting in neighborhoods across the island.
Cayetano got 44 percent of the vote in the August 2012 primary against Caldwell and incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle. It was enough to move on to the general election, but not enough to win outright.
In November, Cayetano lost to Caldwell, 53 percent to 45 percent.
What Bickerton hopes for now is that the release of the emails shines some light on what PRP and the consultants did.
Bickerton said well-funded organizations like PRP can shut “ordinary people” out by making it difficult to compete on a level playing field.
“That degree of sophistication and coordination are made possible by these large black pools of money,” Bickerton said. “It’s not a mom-and-pop organization that’s using these hired guns. They can poll test their ads. They can fine-tune them. They can spend hours and hours moving one word here and one word there to get the impact they’re looking for.”
One email that stands out is a Feb. 17, 2012, message about an upcoming PRP strategy session that would discuss rail, the mayor’s race and the formation of a PAC.
There were 22 people on the list of “expected attendees,” including White, Winer and many of the other consultants who worked on the campaign against Cayetano.
Alan Yamamoto, from U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye’s office, was also on the list. It was the only time a representative from the late senator’s office appeared in the emails.
Yamamoto’s involvement raises questions about just how many more people were involved in PRP’s campaign and how highly placed they were. Yamamoto, who now works for Hirono’s Honolulu office, did not return requests for comment.
Inouye was an ardent supporter of bringing rail to Honolulu and was instrumental in securing $1.55 billion in federal funds to help make it happen.
But Inouye’s former chief of staff, Jennifer Sabas, told Civil Beat the senator had nothing to do with PRP’s political action committee.
“We were a strong advocate for rail,” Sabas said. “We worked the positive issues.”
She said the only organization that Inouye’s staffers regularly interacted with was the pro-rail nonprofit Move Oahu Forward, a group she now heads.
PRP is a part of Move Oahu Forward, and has given money to help support it. But Sabas, whose husband John also works for PRP, said there was no interaction beyond that.
And while there was some friction between Cayetano and Inouye during the 2012 election — Inouye said it would take World War III to stop rail — Sabas said the two knew how to set aside their differences.
“When Ben Cayetano came out as strongly as he did it kind of took the senator aback,” Sabas said. “Even if the senator disagreed with Ben’s position on rail he would never condone the type of activity that went on.”
You can read the emails here: