Keith Amemiya’s campaign won’t face fines after paying for an ad in the Midweek publication that was packaged as a news story, a state panel has ruled.

The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission voted unanimously to dismiss two complaints that allege the paid advertisement — which ran on the cover of the weekly supplement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser — did not prominently display a disclaimer saying it was an ad.

The Amemiya ad was one of several issues the commission took up at an hours-long meeting Wednesday. The commission also levied over $4,400 worth of fines against 20 candidate campaigns and political action committees.

The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission dismissed two complaints over a Keith Amemiya Midweek ad. Screenshot/2020

The Amemiya ad ran in the July 22 issue of Midweek. It’s front page had a picture of the mayoral hopeful in a lei and the words “Born To Lead” in bold font. While a disclosure that the story was actually an advertisement appeared just after the last sentence in the article, there was no indication on the front cover.

An online version of the story says it’s by “Midweek Staff.”

“This boils down to a lack of transparency,” Michael Golojuch Jr., one of the complainants, told the commission. “I’m not the only one that didn’t realize they were reading a campaign ad.”

While the advertisement might raise issues of journalistic integrity, it did not run afoul of the law.

Nathan Okubo, Amemiya’s campaign treasurer, told the commission the campaign filed a notice for the ad a month before its scheduled run date. Okubo argued that requirements for disclosures to be placed in a prominent location apply only to noncandidate committees, like PACs, not candidate committees, such as a campaign.

“That being said our campaign still published the disclosure,” Okubo said. “We put it at the most prominent location: at the end.”

Stanley Lum, a commissioner, noted later in the meeting that disclosure was proper.

The commission also dismissed a challenge alleging Lanakila Mangauil, a candidate for the Big Island seat on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees, accepted prohibited campaign contributions when he ran an OHA-produced video on his campaign social media.

TMT protester Lanakila Manguil.
A complaint against protest leader Lanakila Mangauil, who is running for the OHA Board of Trustees, was also dismissed Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The complaint came from Pua Ishibashi, who also ran for the Hawaii island seat but didn’t make it past the primary. It stems from a video Mangauil posted to Facebook weeks before the primary election Aug. 8.

The video was credited to OHA, which produced the video as part of a series on young Hawaiian leaders that ran online and in OHA’s newspaper, Ka Wai Ola, in December and January. Mangauil has featured prominently in protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope.

In a statement to the commission, Ishibashi argued that posting the video gave the impression that OHA supported Mangauil. Israel Silva, Mangauil’s campaign chair, disagreed, saying that the videos were produced before Lanakila announced his candidacy in February.

Everett Ohta, an OHA attorney, also had the same reasoning as Manguail’s campaign. Lum, one of the commissioners, also cited the date the video was produced in his reasoning for voting to dismiss the complaint.

“Apparently, the candidate was not a candidate at the time the video was made,” Lum said. “It was more about Hawaiian leadership than campaigning.”

Lighter Penalties Assessed

The commission also doled out $4,400 worth of fines at the meeting. Most of the fines involved late filings of electioneering reports, statements candidates are required to file 24 hours after signing a contract for an ad buy.

Rules around filing those disclosures have been confusing for candidates, which led to heavy fines in 2018.

Fewer campaigns and committees were fined this year, which Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao chalked up to increased enforcement in the last election. But some candidates still faced issues with complying with the law.

Becky Gardner, who lost in the Democratic race for House District 20, said her campaign had trouble reporting some ad buys because Facebook changed the way candidates pay for ads.

Gardner said Facebook did not charge her campaign as soon as it ran the ads, but rather when the ads received a certain amount of views or interactions.

The commission has lobbied for new laws that could help clarify electioneering rules. One would expand what a disclosure date is in the law to say whenever an ad becomes publicly available.

But in the last two legislative sessions, the commission’s bills have either stalled, been killed or changed so far from their original intent that the commission ended up opposing them. 

Gardner’s campaign was among 14 other committees granted leniency for being first-time violators. The commission assessed about $3,100 in fines altogether for those committees, but saved them from an additional $6,000 that could have been assessed under the law.

Others who were fined by the commission before were not so lucky.

Will Espero, a candidate for city council, was slapped with a $500 fine for failing to file electioneering reports on time, and Sonny Ganaden, a candidate for the House, was fined $300 for filing campaign spending reports late.

The commission also assessed $250 fines against HIRA, a Republican splinter group whose name stands for Hawaii Republican Action. The super PAC spent $500 to bail out a protester arrested at a rally against the statewide shutdown over the summer.

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