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Hawaii law prohibits political candidates from using their own campaign funds to support the campaigns of other candidates.
But some state legislators and other officeholders have long gotten around the ban through a loophole that lets them buy up to two tickets to another politician’s fundraiser for an amount often equal to the maximum allowable individual campaign contribution.
Now the Legislature is considering a bill that would remove the need to hold a fundraiser and simply allow direct campaign donations between candidates — something critics contend amounts to buying influence.
Even without the bill, in the past three years alone more than 70 politicians have transferred a total of about $200,000 of their own campaign money to other candidates, according to state Campaign Spending Commission data.
The vast majority who do so are in the Legislature, predominantly members of the House. A handful of the most powerful lawmakers account for the bulk of this type of spending.
Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the Finance Committee, tops the list, having doled out $26,600 of her own campaign money to other candidates from Nov. 7, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2015, according to Campaign Spending Commission data.
Doing so hardly made a dent in her campaign war chest. She was sitting on just over $150,000 at the end of last year, in large part due to the influential position she holds as chair of the committee that shepherds the overall state budget bill and other legislation with financial components.
Senate President Ron Kouchi was next-highest. He gave $21,800 of his campaign money to other candidates over the last three years, followed by House Majority Leader Scott Saiki at $13,500.
Critics say it’s a blatant attempt by legislators to solidify their support base and maintain control. The money is often given to lawmakers who were just elected or to those with limited campaign funds, and it’s also used to try ousting incumbents by propping up challengers.
“If you happen to be an incumbent with a healthy balance in your campaign fund, this enables you to create loyalty by simply writing a check to a less well-funded colleague,” said Janet Mason, who co-chairs the legislative committee for the League of Women Voters of Hawaii.
“The more money in your fund, the more checks you can write,” she said. “This makes the recipient colleague directly beholden to the generous donor candidate and of course leverages the original donation so that part or all of it can reach more than one candidate.”
Lawmakers who support being able to give their campaign money to other candidates say they do so because of shared values or a desire to help a person with a common agenda. They say no allegiance is expected in return, and cringe at even the suggestion of “vote buying.”
“It would be problematic if that was the attitude,” Kouchi said. “If someone told me, ‘I bought a ticket to your fundraiser and I expect your support,’ I would go give them their money back.”
Kouchi, Kauai’s sole senator, said he often buys fundraising tickets when “someone has seen fit to push the issues I care about on Kauai.” He pointed at how he’s given money to Gov. David Ige, who was “certainly kind to Kauai” when he was head of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Plus, Kouchi said, lawmakers are generally “passionate, independent people.”
“Everyone winds up voting how they choose to vote,” he said.
Luke has pushed forward House Bill 2156, which cleared the House last week, that would make it easier for lawmakers to spread their campaign wealth among colleagues.
The measure would eliminate the part of the law allowing candidates to buy up to two tickets for an event held by another candidate, replacing it with a line that lets candidates give their own campaign money directly to another candidate up to the maximum individual contribution limits allowed by law.
The limits are $2,000 each election cycle for candidates seeking two-year offices, such as the House; $4,000 for four-year non-statewide offices, such as mayor and Senate; and $6,000 for four-year statewide offices, such as lieutenant governor and governor.
Christine Trecker told the Finance Committee that the measure should be killed.
“When I donate money to a candidate it is that candidate alone that I want to benefit,” Trecker said. “Under no circumstances would I logically assume or want that candidate to use my contribution to his or her campaign to support another candidate committee of their choosing.”
Saiki and Luke have given money to many of the same people over the past three years, especially new House reps with limited campaign funds and members loyal to House Speaker Joe Souki.
Luke has financially supported Reps. Nicole Lowen, Gregg Takayama, Richard Creagan, Richard Onishi, John Mizuno, Takashi Ohno, Bert Kobayashi, Justin Woodson, Della Au Belatti, Roy Takumi, Kaniela Ing, Joy San Buenaventura, Matt LoPresti, Tom Brower, Lynn DeCoite and Jarrett Keohokalole.
Saiki gave his campaign funds to Woodson, Takayama, San Buenaventura, Onishi, Ohno, Lowen, LoPresti, Kobayashi, Keohokalole, Ing, Creagan, Brower and Rep. Chris Lee.
Six of those lawmakers sit on the Finance Committee with Luke. Keohokalole, LoPresti, San Buenaventura and DeCoite are in their first term, and many have raised little money from individual contributions by their constituents.
Saiki and Luke also gave money to Robert Harris, who was seeking an open House seat in 2014. But when Keohokalole beat him in the Democratic primary, they started giving him money instead. Harris now works in the solar industry.
In some instances, House and Senate leaders will host a fundraiser that supports their colleagues. Luke spent $683 on food and drinks for a mid-session fundraiser March 18 at The Mandalay, and $1,875 on a fundraiser at Ferguson’s Pub before the 2014 legislative session kicked off, just to name a couple.
The League of Women Voters is concerned that passage of the bill would effectively let lawmakers donate more of their campaign funds to their colleagues by nixing the costs of holding a fundraiser.
“This enables you to create loyalty by simply writing a check to a less well-funded colleague.” — Janet Mason, League of Women Voters of Hawaii
The fundraisers have continued this year, but the amounts raised won’t be public until the next campaign finance reports are released. The reports will cover Jan. 1 to June 30, and are due on July 14 — more than two months after the 2016 legislative session ends.
Luke held a fundraiser in February with Ohno, Lowen, Ing, Kobayashi, Woodson, Onishi and Creagan at Artizan Restaurant.
The money is crucial to many of the recipients.
Kobayashi’s campaign account had a negative balance of $4,286 as of Dec. 31. He’s raised just $4,400 this election period, and $2,000 came from Luke in April. He relied on campaign money from Souki, Saiki and Luke — and a $12,000 loan to himself — to win his first race in 2012. He has yet to pay off the loan.
Creagan’s biggest single campaign contribution in the past year came from Luke, who gave him $2,000 in April. His next highest donations were $500 each from two lobbyists, John Radcliffe and George Morris.
Leading up to the 2014 Democratic primary, roughly one-fourth of the money Lowen received came from other House lawmakers’ campaign accounts, including $1,000 each from Souki, Saiki and Luke. The bulk of the rest came from political action committees and unions.
Her opponent in that race, Kalei Akaka, received campaign money from Kouchi, who gave her $1,000 three months before the election. Akaka lost to Lowen, 2,128 votes to 1,273.
“I don’t think anyone is acting as a puppet for anyone else.” — Rep. Nicole Lowen
Lowen described the campaign contributions from her colleagues as an “expression of support,” and said her vote is not for sale.
“Whether it’s coming from a colleague or organization, all politicians operate off of donations,” she said. “I don’t think anyone is acting as a puppet for anyone else.”
Kouchi has also used his campaign funds to buy fundraiser tickets from Bobby Bunda, the former Senate president who is now seeking a Honolulu City Council seat. Kouchi gave him $500 for the Dec. 1 event at The Pacific Club.
Looking to the next election, Kouchi has started giving campaign money to Hawaii County Councilman Greggor Ilagan, who is trying to unseat Sen. Russell Ruderman.
When the Senate reorganized last year to make Kouchi president instead of Donna Mercado Kim, Ruderman lost key committee assignments after backing Kim and has been on the outs with the current leadership.
Ruderman has donated to other candidates, but he has done so with his own money instead of his campaign account. He gave Lowen $150 in 2014. Ruderman, who has mostly self-financed his campaigns, is one of the few lawmakers who uses his personal money to make political donations.
“People with lots of money and influence buy legislators and own people,” Ruderman said. “They own their votes and their favors and their loyalties. It’s not the way that democracy is supposed to work.”
The legislation making it easier for politicians to use their campaign money to make donations to other lawmakers is “the exact opposite way” the state should be moving, Ruderman said.
“It allows kingmakers to maintain their fiefdom within the Legislature,” he said.
Kouchi gave Sen. Michelle Kidani $1,000 on May 29, three weeks after she helped install him as president by organizing members of her political faction to oust Kim.
But it’s the fifth floor of the Capitol that has received most of the campaign money Kouchi has given to other candidates — $8,000 to Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui and $4,500 to Gov. David Ige.
“It allows kingmakers to maintain their fiefdom within the Legislature.” — Sen. Russell Ruderman
Kouchi also backed members of the House, including fellow Kauai lawmakers Derek Kawakami and James Tokioka. He also gave campaign money to former House Speaker Calvin Say and members loyal to Say, such as Reps. Sharon Har, Ken Ito, Isaac Choy and Jo Jordan. Souki ousted Say as speaker in 2012.
Saiki said even if the Legislature was to ban lawmakers from giving their campaign money to other candidates, these kinds of contributions would continue through the formation of new political action committees.
He said there’s more disclosure requirements in individual contributions than PACs, so he prefers the current method.
“These kinds of transactions are made public so they are open to scrutiny,” Saiki said. “We are being very transparent in how these funds are being used.”
He said if contributors are concerned that their money is not being used well by the candidate, they can stop making the donations.
Luke, first elected to the House in 1998, said the bill would close a loophole.
For House races, the maximum donation per two-year election cycle is $2,000. It’s always been assumed, but never made clear, that the limit on buying fundraiser tickets from other candidates is the same.
Lawmakers have questioned whether they could get twice the allowable contribution by holding a fundraiser that’s $2,000 per ticket, since each candidate can buy two tickets.
There have also been concerns over what constitutes a ticket. Saiki said it’s gotten technical, to the point that the state Campaign Spending Commission says a ticket has to be printed and have a stub that can be torn off.
“As opposed to trying to figure out what is a ticket, and what constitutes the process to purchase the ticket, let’s just make the law clear and say it’s up to the max allowable for that candidate under the law,” Luke said.
The League of Women Voters supports the bill’s intent to set a clear dollar limit on the amount that a candidate can donate to another candidate out of their own campaign funds because of the ambiguity over fundraiser tickets. But Mason said the legitimate use of campaign funds should still be for expenses directly related to a candidate’s campaign.
“When I donate money to a candidate it is that candidate alone that I want to benefit.” — Christine Trecker
The Campaign Spending Commission, headed by Kristin Izumi-Nitao, came out against the measure when the Finance Committee heard it March 1.
The bill removes the only condition — have a fundraiser with tickets issued — imposed upon a candidate in order to receive campaign funds contributed to another candidate, she said in her testimony.
“This use of campaign funds already goes against the public policy established in HRS 11-382(1) which prohibits the use of campaign funds to support another candidate, which of course this measure also seeks to amend,” Izumi-Nitao said.
If the Legislature insists on passing the bill, Izumi-Nitao said, lawmakers should at least require candidates to include a disclaimer in the promotional materials they use for fundraisers by saying “contributions received by the candidate may be used by that candidate to make contributions to other candidates.”
That would make it “clear to potential contributors that their contributions to a candidate may in fact go to other candidates, who may not directly represent the contributors,” she said.
Luke did not include the proposed amendment in the bill. Instead, she took the contents out of the bill the commission opposed and added them to a bill that deals with how the commission is funded.
She said doing so “lets me see the whole package.”
The combined measure, House Bill 2156, addresses how the commission is funded and allows candidates to give their campaign money to each other. It also caps how much campaign money candidates can give to civic and community groups, another practice that the League of Women Voters and other good-government groups have opposed.
Under the bill, lawmakers could only spend up to twice the allowable individual contribution limit, which only a few have come close to doing, according to the Campaign Spending Commission.
“If someone told me, ‘I bought a ticket to your fundraiser and I expect your support,’ I would go give them their money back.” — Ron Kouchi, Senate president
“Donation of surplus campaign funds to community groups or other candidate committees is easily construed as a form of vote buying,” Mason said. “When a candidate donates instruments to a school band in his district, the favorable publicity buys him or her a lot of good will and gratitude, which he or she presumably expects will sway voters in his or her favor.”
Whether it’s lawmakers giving their campaign money to their colleagues or making donations to civic groups, Luke said she doesn’t think it’s an issue to be concerned about.
“Any donation, people can see it different ways,” she said.
Saiki said when he makes a donation to another candidate, it’s because he believes that person either would be or already is a good legislator and should hold that office.
The measure is in the Senate’s hands now, and has been referred to the Judiciary and Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran.
Kouchi said he has yet to review the latest draft, and declined to comment on whether he would support it.