It’s not over yet.
The state Campaign Spending Commission decided Wednesday to defer until November a complaint that former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano filed against the super PAC that crushed his bid for mayor in 2012.
Pacific Resource Partnership, a political action committee funded by contractors and unionized carpenters, spent over $3 million on a coordinated attack to keep Cayetano out of office after he pledged to end Honolulu’s $5.2 billion rail project if elected.
“I’m not doing this for any kind of motive like revenge — the public has the right to know,” Cayetano said.
The commission’s executive director, Kristin Izumi-Nitao, and general counsel, Gary Kam, had recommended that the five-member commission dismiss Cayetano’s complaint that PRP failed to report certain expenditures because the group corrected its campaign finance forms in September and paid a $1,250 fine.
But the commission’s chair, William Snipes, said that’s not good enough. He wants to refer the case to the prosecutor’s office — a rare move that could lead to harsher penalties and a deeper investigation if it takes the case.
“I’m a little disappointed that the commission did not look into this further,” Snipes said. “PRP’s position may be validated in the process but I’m not comfortable closing the book on it.”
Snipes said he sees a pattern with PRP and its executive director, John White, of breaking campaign finance rules despite the group’s attorney, Leroy Colombe, claiming they are isolated, unrelated incidents.
The very next item on the agenda was another complaint against PRP, this one filed by Izumi-Nitao, but for the same reason — failing to report expenditures, in this case $86,000 for fliers aimed at helping Kirk Caldwell win the mayoral race.
Colombe apologized for the reporting errors and agreed that the group should be fined.
“There may have been an oversight or two, but not a pattern,” he said.
The commission decided to roll that complaint over to its next meeting since it was related.
Two other complaints with links to PRP and White were dismissed.
Maui resident Karen Chun had alleged that Forward Progress — a new super PAC headed by White that is funded from the same source that PRP got its money from, the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund — failed to identify independent expenditures. She also alleged that the fund failed to identify contributors.
Cayetano settled a defamation lawsuit against PRP in June. The group had to apologize via two half-page ads in the Star-Advertiser, which Cayetano said was the most important part to him, and donate $125,000 to two charities of his choosing, the University of Hawaii and Hawaiian Humane Society.
The unreported expenditures surfaced after the lawsuit unearthed almost 500 emails that revealed who PRP was consulting with in its strategy to defeat Cayetano.
PRP did not report over $100,000 it paid Andy Winer, a Democratic Party strategist who is currently Sen. Brian Schatz’s chief of staff; local media consultants Jim McCoy and Barbara Tanabe, who worked for Hoakea Communications; and Jason Stanford, a major political strategist based in Texas.
Kam said the executive director filed the complaint against PRP after reading about the issue in Civil Beat in June. The story detailed the political strategies PRP employed in 2012.
“The penalty for trying to deceive the commission is a felony,” Cayetano said, noting that the question before the commission — or possibly the prosecutor — is looking into White’s intent.
Columbe, who shielded White from the commission’s questioning, said he understood the concern over the amount of money that was not included in the reports but maintained that it was not an effort to hide anything.
“All I can do on behalf of my client is apologize,” Columbe said.
Snipes and Commissioner Gregory Shoda seem inclined to forward at least one of the complaints to the prosecutor’s office, which could pursue the matter or it might just send it back to the commission.
Commissioner Eldon Ching said he agrees with the staff recommendation to dismiss the Cayetano matter.
“To me, it was a misinterpretation of the statute,” he said.
Commissioner Adrienne Yoshihara recused herself because she works at the same law firm as the attorney for PRP.
The swing vote, Commissioner Tina Gomes, was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting.