In the closing days of a tight primary race, television ads from a mysterious new political action committee have hit the local airwaves to support U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s bid for governor.
But the PAC, “Defend Hawaii Now,” has not registered with the state’s Campaign Spending Commission, nor has it filed any electioneering reports detailing its expenses. Those actions are typically required for campaign ads on local television.
The ads appear to be linked to Dennis Mitsunaga, a prominent contractor and longtime key political donor in Hawaii who’s been involved in previous campaign spending violations and controversies.
Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao at the group’s meeting in May.
Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat
Any outside group that spends more than $1,000 in an election must register with the commission, according to Kristin Izumi-Nitao, the commission’s executive director. If it spends at least $2,000 on advertising it must further file an electioneering report chronicling those expenses, she added.
Update: A search of Federal Communications Commissions records indicates Defend Hawaii Now has contracts totaling at least $69,270 to run pro-Hanabusa ads at least 116 times times across local channels KITV, KFVE, KHNL, KHON and cable stations from July 30 to Aug. 10.
“They’re off our radar … except for that ad,” Izumi-Nitao said Friday of Defend Hawaii Now’s lack of reporting. The commission, she added, sent letters Friday to a post office box address listed at the end of the ad requesting more details from the group on its campaign activities.
Izumi-Nitao said she could not confirm the group committed violations until the commission gets a response from Defend Hawaii Now.
Mitsunaga is president of the Honolulu-based architectural firm Mitsunaga & Associates Inc. In previous elections he’s been a staunch supporter of former Hawaii governors Ben Cayetano and Neil Abercrombie, whom Ige unseated in 2014.
State business records list him as a representative of “Waimea Associates” — the company named in Defend Hawaii Now’s television ad as its top donor.
He did not respond to a request for comment Friday through the Mitsunaga & Associates office.
The ad includes recordings of U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard endorsing her congressional colleague, Hanabusa, and criticizing incumbent Gov. David Ige for his “failure of leadership” following the state’s infamous Jan. 13 false missile alert:
It’s reminiscent of the “38 minutes” ad being run by a different outside group, Be Change Now, to support Hanabusa and oppose Ige. That group has so far poured nearly $3 million into the primary election cycle, including $1 million for Sen. Josh Green’s lieutenant governor bid.
Defend Hawaii Now could face a $500 fine for failing to file an electioneering report, Izumi-Nitao said. Its ad hits the airwaves as polls show Hanabusa’s once-sizable lead over the incumbent has evaporated.
In 2016, when Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell ran for re-election, the Mitsunaga-backed super PAC “Save Our City” spent about $300,000 opposing the mayor’s bid. It did not reveal Mitsunaga as one of its key backers until weeks after it was supposed to.
An anti-Caldwell sign from the Save Our City super PAC in 2016
Chad Blair/Civil Beat
The group was fined $125 during that cycle for failing to make the proper disclosures in its ads.
In the 2012 mayoral race, Mitsunaga himself was targeted in ads by a pro-rail union group (and predecessor to Be Change Now) as a “pay-to-play” beneficiary of former Gov. Ben Cayetano — and a reason why Cayetano shouldn’t be mayor.
Mitsunaga fired back against that group, Pacific Resource Partnership, in his own subsequent ads.
The Campaign Spending Commission also investigated Mitsunaga in the early 2000s for alleged violations but never pressed charges.
Defend Hawaii Now’s ad indicates the group is working independently of Hanabusa’s campaign, which is what independent expenditure comittees, or “super PACs,” can do to spend unlimited funds in a race.
Campaign spending records show that Mitsunaga & Associates’ owner, John Cates, and its manager, Terri Otani, contributed a combined $9,000 to Hanabusa’s campaign directly. It’s common for company employees to make such donations in state elections.
The primary election will take place Aug. 11.
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