Correction: A previous version of this story included campaign contribution amounts that were inaccurate. As a result, the amount lobbyists donated to political campaigns was understated. The story has been updated throughout to reflect the changes.
Topping the list of recipients are big political names, such as former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and state Sen. Rosalyn Baker, who chairs the influential Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee that deals with legislation on issues such as GMOs and medical marijuana.
Although Radcliffe and Morris have given the most by far, more than 200 lobbyists registered for at least the last three years have donated to candidates running for state and local offices over the last 10 years. Those lobbyists have given a total of about $2.5 million.
“They can’t give you that much money in the first place.” — Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie
Many prominent lobbyists represent several clients. And while lobbyists have to report contributions to candidates just like any other individual givers, they don’t have to list campaign contributions in their annual filings with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, which is the agency assigned to oversee their activities.
Therefore, it’s nearly impossible to draw a direct line of potential influence from a lobbyist’s campaign donation to a client’s desired outcome.
Observers say lobbyists often donate to candidates to build relationships that potentially improve their access to public officials.
“It’s not dramatic in the sense that they’re passing money under the table or anything like that,” said Neal Milner, a Civil Beat columnist and political science professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii. “It’s the fact that money buys lobbyists, and lobbyists are buying knowledge and access to political officials.”
But Abercrombie, who pulled in about $260,000 in lobbyist donations, said they hardly mattered in terms of opening the door.
In January 2016, lawmakers introduced a bill that would have allowed vacation rental companies, such as Airbnb and VRBO, to collect taxes on behalf of the state, which the companies favored because it would help legitimize their rentals and possibly insulate them from harsher legislation.
Airbnb was represented by Capitol Consultants of Hawaii, the company owned by Morris and Radcliffe.
Campaign spending data shows that lobbyists working for Capitol Consultants donated to several of the lawmakers who introduced the bill or were listed as co-sponsors. Among those who got donations were Baker and Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee. The legislation was shepherded through both Baker and Luke’s committees before passing the full Legislature.
Gov. David Ige eventually vetoed the bill.
“The perception always is that people are giving contributions because the person is always going to vote your way,” said Bob Toyofuku, who’s been a lobbyist for more than 30 years, “and that is really not the case.”
Toyofuku has represented clients such as Uber, medical associations and a tobacco-free coalition. In the past 10 years, he has contributed about $60,000 to state and local candidates, including Ige, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim — the former Senate president — and Rep. Marcus Oshiro, who previously served as the chair of the Finance Committee, which is the most powerful committee in the House.
Toyofuku did not want to delve into the details behind his contributions. Several other lobbyists contacted by Civil Beat, including Radcliffe and Morris, declined to comment, did not return phone calls or were unavailable for interviews.
“Money buys lobbyists, and lobbyists are buying knowledge and access to political officials.” — Neal Milner
Ian Lind, a former lobbyist for the open-government advocacy group Common Cause Hawaii and a columnist for Civil Beat who often writes about lobbying laws, said there’s no question that people in the profession give money so they can be better known by politicians.
“Good lobbyists want to be in the middle of the political process,” Lind said. “One key way to do that in our electoral system is to make contributions, whether it’s a $200 contribution to everybody on a committee or you’re (giving thousands of dollars to) a committee chair, you are embedding yourself in the political process.”
He said that when he was a lobbyist in the late 1980s, contributions were a part of the game and fundraisers were where lobbyists went to schmooze.
“If you want to be part of that flow of information, well, you’ve got that $25 or $50 and you paid at the door,” Lind said. “As I viewed it, that was the price of admission.”
Most of the individual contributions from lobbyists were relatively small — more than 90 percent of them were less than $1,000 — which is why Abercrombie said the donations don’t translate into direct influence.
The former governor received more campaign contributions from lobbyists than any other candidate for state office, but that $260,000 comprised just 3 percent of his overall contributions of about $7 million from individuals.
“The implication is that if you don’t do what the lobbyist wants you to do that somehow you’re going to get hurt,” Abercrombie said. “Somehow they’ll do something to you, up to and including, ‘We won’t give you any more money.’ Well, they can’t give you that much money in the first place.”
Others argue, however, that lobbyists in general have more access to public officials than other members of the public.
“Any opportunity for a lobbyist to talk to a legislator or a political official is theoretically available to everyone,” Milner said. “But in fact, it’s not available. In fact, everybody can’t get the same kind of access because they don’t know how or they don’t necessarily know how to talk to them. They haven’t established that relationship.”
Tracking The Money
Finding out which lobbyists are donating to whom and how much can be an arduous process.
Although lobbyists are legally mandated to report their expenditures to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, most say they haven’t spent any money at all.
For example, the lobbyists who work for Capital Consultants donated about $300,000 to politicians from 2013 to 2016, but none of those expenses appeared on their annual disclosure reports.
That’s because the state’s lobbying law expressly exempts them from having to report campaign contributions as expenditures.
Making matters even more difficult is the fact that fewer than 25 percent of the lobbyists who donated to political campaigns are identified as lobbyists in Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission data.
Often their occupations are listed as consultant, attorney or “self-employed.”
State Sen. Les Ihara has spent much of his political career pushing for lobbying reform and other measures related to ethics and campaign finance. He said there’s a clear need for Hawaii to tighten up its rules related to lobbying, and in particular lobbyists’ contributions, which he describes as “legalized gift giving.”
“Transparency or more reporting allows more dots to be put on the map.” — Sen. Les Ihara
Many agree that the state’s lobbying regulations are in need of reform. Last year, Hawaii received an F grade for lobbying disclosure laws and practices from the Center for Public Integrity, a drop-off from its last report in 2012 when the state received a D-.
While disclosure reports from lobbyists have become increasingly available to the public in recent years thanks to the Eethics Commission’s online database, the contents of those reports have largely remained unchanged.
Although the Ethics Commission has pushed for reforms before, Executive Director Dan Gluck said the agency has no definite plans to approach the Legislature next year. But, he said, the commission is planning to organize a meeting next month to discuss the issue with the public.
Legislative efforts to reform lobbying laws, which were created nearly four decades ago, have failed year after year, something Ihara is all too familiar with. He said that lobbyists don’t want the increased scrutiny because it could add to the perception that lobbyist cash is running the show.
“Transparency or more reporting allows more dots to be put on the map and then the more there are, the more people can connect the dots and create a story,” Ihara said.
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