Warning shots were fired Wednesday at Hawaii candidates who have flouted laws requiring them to file their campaign finance reports on time and accurately so the public can see who is putting money behind their bids for state and county offices.
The five-member state Campaign Spending Commission plans to formally review staff guidelines on how much to fine candidates for various violations after seeing more late and erroneous filings.
Commissioner Gregory Shoda proposed doubling the fines against Maui County Councilman Alika Atay and his campaign for filing at least five false reports since 2016 while ignoring the commission’s request to correct them and work out a conciliation agreement.
“We need to fire a shot across the bow,” Shoda said. “I don’t see how transparency and the integrity of the elections can be upheld this way. I think a stronger message has to be made.”
Shoda’s fellow commissioners held off on increasing the fines in an effort to remain consistent with following the commission’s staff guidelines for fines, which in the Atay case totaled $2,700.
They decided instead to take up the issue at their meeting next month and ask those broad “philosophical questions,” as Commissioner Kenneth Goodenow put it.
Commission Chair Bryan Luke said the panel needs to review its fine policies.
Most of the candidates were fined for either not filing or submitting a late statement of information for electioneering communications. These reports are supposed to be submitted within 24 hours of signing a contract for an ad buy, such as TV commercials, newspaper ads or social media promos.
The commission opted to not fine candidates during the 2016 election for not following the new law, but warned them that there would be financial penalties in 2018.
The commission also tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to clarify the law, which many candidates said was confusing. Some understood it to mean the reports were due 24 hours after their ad ran, not when the contract was signed, which often happens months in advance.
The biggest fine — $3,333 — went to Sen. Lorraine Inouye for filing her electioneering statements late. Her fine, like a few dozen others, was part of a conciliation agreement with the commission that resulted in a much reduced penalty and avoids the formal docket process to present the case.
Honolulu City Council candidate Tommy Waters and the Defend Hawaii Now super PAC had the next highest fines, $1,000 apiece, for failing to file and filing late electioneering statements.
The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly PAC agreed to a reduced $666 fine for similarly filing its electioneering statements late.
Debi Hartman of UHPA told the commission that she does not think anyone purposely chose to not file their electioneering statements late. She said the mistake had everything to do with confusion over the law.
“Misery loves company,” she said. “And this is one of those miserable laws.”
Hartman said UHPA will be working with the commission to propose changes to the law next legislative session, which starts in January.
“It is amazing to see this many campaigns make the exact same mistake,” she said.
Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao said the commission definitely plans to submit another bill next session.
Gary Kam, the commission’s legal counsel, suggested changing the law so the electioneering statements are due 24 hours after the ad runs instead of after the contract is signed.
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