As independent groups continue their efforts to influence Hawaii elections by flooding airwaves with ads about ballot issues and stuffing mailboxes with fliers about candidates, voters are mostly left in the dark about who is spending the money and where it’s coming from.

These political action committees last filed finance reports with the state Campaign Spending Commission in August, which shed some light on who contributed the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent before the primary election and how those funds were used.

But their next reports aren’t due until Oct. 27, just eight days before the Nov. 4 general election. That’s two weeks after absentee ballots are mailed out and a week after early walk-in voting begins.

So for the two most critical months in the election, voters are being bombarded with information trying to convince them to feel a certain way about a candidate or issue without being given a close look at the accounting — not to mention motivations — behind it.

Kaanapali Beach

Surfers paddle in front of Kaanapali Beach on Maui. A group of timeshare owners have formed a PAC there to support a candidate who they hope will help give them a lower tax rate.

Edmund Garman via Flickr

“It’s crucial for citizens to know and understand which independent groups are trying to sway public opinion — essentially their vote,” said Carmille Lim, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. “Ads placed by outside organizations often contain disinformation intended to manipulate voters, and can unfairly hurt candidates in the process.”

The Hawaii race for governor has seen its share of ads funded by mainland groups, including the Democratic and Republican governors associations which have targeted David Ige and Duke Aiona. But big money is also showing up in lower-profile races.

County council elections, especially on Maui and the Big Island, are receiving unprecedented attention from PACs this election. 

Timeshare Owners Want Tax-Friendly Candidate

Among the biggest spenders on the Valley Isle are independent groups funded by timeshare owners and unionized carpenters who want to oust Elle Cochran from her council seat representing West Maui.

Cochran, who has held the seat since 2010, is perhaps best known for her strong positions on environmental issues and sustainability. She’s also been a fearless advocate of labeling genetically modified organisms and strengthening the regulations of pesticides that biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta spray on their crops.

She’s the only current council member who has supported Maui’s ballot initiative to ban genetically engineered farming until it’s studied and deemed safe by the council.

While biotech companies’ PACs have spent over $800,000 to defeat that initiative — easily outgunning the groups opposed to GMOs — the PACs specifically targeting Cochran’s race against first-time candidate Kaala Buenconsejo don’t seem to care about that issue.

Elle Cochran

Maui County Councilwoman Elle Cochran faces a candidate who has received thousands of dollars in support from super PACs.

Elle Cochran's campaign

A new PAC called Maui Timeshare Ohana has raised $250,000, devoting much of it to radio ads and glossy campaign fliers in support of Buenconsejo.

Meanwhile, an old PAC under a new name is also involved in the race. 

Forward Progress, headed by Pacific Resource Partnership Executive Director John White, has hired people to canvas neighborhoods on Maui, ran ads and produced mailers for Buenconsejo. White did not return a message seeking comment.

PRP is a partnership between unionized carpenters and contractors that lobbies for major projects that produce more jobs. It was a major player in the 2012 mayoral race in Honolulu, spending more than $3 million to defeat former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who was campaigning against the city’s $5.2 billion rail project.

Cayetano sued PRP for libel and slander over its campaign against him. A settlement in June required PRP to give the University of Hawaii $100,000 and the Hawaiian Humane Society $25,000 in Cayetano’s name. The group also had to run an apology in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

PRP has stayed out of the bigger contests this election, focusing on local council races despite close races for governor and seats in the Legislature and Congress. 

Super PACs can spend unlimited money for or against a candidate so long as they don’t coordinate their efforts with the candidates. This could explain why Buenconsejo told The Maui News in August that the ads are beyond his control, acknowledging that some have overstated his record and aren’t entirely accurate.

Maui Timeshare Ohana’s money comes from two other PACs — Ocean Resort Villas North and Ocean Resort Villas — that are funded by timeshare owners who frequent the Westin Kaanapali resort on the Valley Isle.

Kaala Buenconsejo

Kaala Buenconsejo, candidate for Maui County Council, has received thousands of dollars in support from independent groups operating beyond his control.

Kaala Buenconsejo's campaign

The timeshare owners feel excluded from the political process. Most live on the mainland, so they can’t vote in Hawaii but are affected by the decisions elected officials make — namely, raising taxes on timeshares.

The group’s ads and mailers don’t talk about taxes. Instead, they assert that Buenconsejo will invest in clean energy, like solar power; help local businesses by cutting through bureaucratic red tape; and eliminate wasteful government spending so the county can improve its roads, public safety and parks.

“We’re trying to help elect people to the council that will listen to the issue,” said Grant Gillham, who runs a government affairs consulting business in Nevada and was asked by a friend to help organize the PAC for the timeshare owners.

“There’s a feeling that that’s not happening right now,” he said, noting many of the council members have been dismissive of the owners’ concerns that their timeshares are taxed far higher than any other category, even hotels.

Gena Kraft, a San Jose businesswoman who chairs the Ocean Resort Villas PAC, said Maui timeshare owners tried for years to work with the council on the issue of fairness.

“It became clear we weren’t being heard,” she said. “We’re basically homeowners on Maui and we have for years now had some issues with segregation with property tax rates and it’s become extremely one-sided.”

The current tax rate for timeshares is $15.07 per $1,000 of net taxable assessed valuation. The rate for hotels and resorts is $9.11, while the residential rate is $5.57.

The two Ocean Resort Villas groups filed a lawsuit in 2013 against Maui County and the council over the tax rates for timeshares. That case is pending.

Maui Timeshare Ohana has sent at least three mailers to Valley Isle residents and produced two radio ads supporting Buenconsejo. Printing and mailing the fliers alone cost over $62,000. 

The PAC had spent $116,110 by Aug. 9, leaving $150,939 in the bank. But because the law doesn’t require the group to file its next campaign finance report until late this month, it’s unclear how the rest of that money has been used.

For his part, Buenconsejo had raised $23,927 by the August primary, including donations from mainland PACs like the American Resort Development Association-Resort Owner’s Group. His campaign account was down to $2,758 by Aug. 9. 

Cochran’s campaign owed almost $55,000, mostly to her mother and husband who helped get her going in politics with seed money in 2010. She’d raised $11,542 this election and spent $1,111. Her campaign had $2,060 on hand as of Aug. 9.

Hawaii, Honolulu Council Races Feel PAC Influence

On the Big Island, Forward Progress has been spending tens of thousands of dollars on radio ads and mailers backing Ron Gonzales, Tiffany Edwards-Hunt and Maile David for the Hawaii County Council.

David won her seat outright in the Aug. 9 primary by securing more than half of all the votes cast. Gonzales and Hunt both advanced to the general election.

Forward Progress has also funded three negative mailers against first-term Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who has led the county’s fight against GMOs, but it hasn’t reported the expenses yet, according to a Hawaii Tribune-Herald story last week.

The Campaign Spending Commission is investigating Forward Progress and plans to take up the Big Island matter at its next meeting, Oct. 22, the article says.

Forward Progress also poured tens of thousands of dollars into Brandon Elefante’s effort to represent Pearl City on the Honolulu City Council. Elefante won the District 8 seat outright in the primary.

Voters need information about campaign contributions and expenditures “at a time that would be useful and meaningful.” —state Sen. Les Ihara

The group, which is funded by union dues paid to the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program, had spent over $260,000 by Aug. 9.

Aikea, a super PAC funded by union dues from Unite Here Local 5’s hotel and hospitality workers, has been spending almost at the same level as Forward Progress, but on different races.

The group paid tens of thousands of dollars for people to go door-to-door to get voters to support Joli Tokusato’s effort to oust Carol Fukunaga from her District 6 seat on the Honolulu City Council. Tokusato lost in the primary, so now the group is canvasing to get working-class families involved in the political process.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Les Ihara plans to introduce a bill next session, which begins in January, to address the reporting deadlines for PACs and candidates. He’s tried for years to get something passed, but without success.

In 2011, Ihara tried to move up the reporting deadline to “10 days before the first day that walk-in ballots are accepted.” That bill, referred to the Judiciary and Labor Committee chaired by Sen. Clayton Hee, never got a hearing.

The Campaign Spending Commission tried as well that year, pushing a bill that would have added an additional finance report to be due Sept. 30. The legislation cleared the House but died a similar death in Hee’s committee without a hearing.

Next year could be different. There will be a new Judiciary and Labor chairman, since Hee gave up his seat in the Senate for an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.

Voters need information about campaign contributions and expenditures “at a time that would be useful and meaningful,” Ihara said.

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