For weeks, Honolulu mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya has been trading blows with a super PAC trying to derail his campaign with false and misleading allegations linking him to political corruption.

Amemiya, a former corporate executive and campaign treasurer for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, hasn’t taken the attacks lightly.

He recently swiped back with his own series of accusations that raise questions about who really runs the Aloha Aina Oiaio super PAC and whether its donors are breaking the law to hide their true identities.

If the sniping, innuendo and political intrigue feels familiar that’s because it is.

Honolulu Mayoral Candidate Keith Amemiya greets his supporters on the corner of Punchbowl and Beretania Street. August 8, 2020.

Honolulu mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya says he’s the victim of a super PAC’s smear campaign.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The people who play in Hawaii politics — despite what they might proclaim publicly — don’t always do so with aloha. Secret smear campaigns, anonymous mailers and attack ads, even those shared in conversation between neighbors, have long been a part of the political landscape.

Consider Cec Heftel, the former Democratic congressman from Hawaii who died in 2010. After Heftel lost his bid for governor in 1986 he blamed it on a smear campaign involving a confidential state report that he said falsely described him as a gay drug addict who had sex with children.

Heftel said he was also the victim of a whisper campaign to spread unfounded rumors about him in the community that he was racist against Japanese and Hawaiians, and that he planned to get rich off of politics.

There are plenty more examples, said Neal Milner, who’s a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii.

Mufi Hannemann, Linda Lingle and Ben Cayetano have all played the victim, he said, although that in itself is part of the trope.

“Every time we start looking at dirty politics in a specific election I think we have to ask ourselves how different it is from other elections and I would have to say not much,” Milner said. “The political races here frequently involve innuendo, gossip and last minute kinds of damaging information. What’s happening now with this super PAC is just a new way to present it. To me it’s not dirty politics. It’s just politics.”

Skirting The Law To Win The Race

This isn’t the first time a super PAC has muddied up a local election.

In 2012, the Pacific Resource Partnership, a consortium made up of contractors and the Hawaii Carpenters Union, spent more than $3 million to sink former Gov. Ben Cayetano’s bid for Honolulu mayor.

Cayetano was running on an anti-rail platform that included halting construction on the city’s then-$5 billion rail project. To stop him, PRP launched a coordinated smear campaign that attacked Cayetano over everything from his criticisms of revered U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye to pardons he signed while he was governor.

A screen shot from one of PRP’s attack ads against former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano.

The blows that landed hardest involved more than $500,000 in campaign contributions Cayetano received in 1998 that were later found to have been donated illegally because the names were false or the amounts given exceeded state limits.

While Cayetano was never found to have violated any laws, PRP pushed a storyline that he was part of a pay-to-play culture that was prevalent at the time, one in which top campaign donors received lucrative no-bid government contracts.

The super PAC even dragged Hawaii businessman Dennis Mitsunaga into the fray. Mitsunaga is the president of Mitsunaga & Associates, a Honolulu-based architectural and engineering firm that’s done millions of dollars in work for federal, state and local governments.

He’s also one of the state’s most prolific campaign donors. Records show he’s contributed nearly $500,000 to various campaigns and causes over the past 15 years. His family and employees have donated hundreds of thousands more.

“I think the public has to be much more discerning about the information that they see on television or what they read in print.” — Former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano

To fight back against PRP, Mitsunaga formed his own political action committee, Defend Truth, that he used to run his own advertising campaign meant to clear his name and criticize the super PAC.

The tit for tat dominated much of the race, but didn’t do much to help Cayetano. He eventually lost to Kirk Caldwell in the November 2012 runoff, an outcome that was largely attributed to PRP’s efforts to undermine his credibility.

Cayetano sued PRP for defamation and won a favorable settlement that included a public apology and pledge to donate $125,000 to the Hawaiian Humane Society and University of Hawaii medical school.

The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission also launched a series of investigations into the super PAC that found it had broken the law by filing false reports and not reporting all of its expenditures.

The commission referred the case to the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office for prosecution, but the agency declined to go after the super PAC. Ultimately, PRP was forced to pay a series of fines that amounted to $2,275, which comes to less than 0.1% of what it spent to take out Cayetano’s campaign.

Governor Ben Cayetano interview at his residence. 21 april 2017

Ben Cayetano, who served consecutive terms as Hawaii’s governor, was the target of a relentless barrage of attacks ads in 2012.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Cayetano said he doesn’t regret fighting back against PRP, both before and after the election. At the time — especially in the heat of the run-off with Caldwell — he said he didn’t have much of a choice.

“The problem with elections is that people make charges and oftentimes the truth can’t be found out until after the election,” Cayetano told Civil Beat in a recent interview. “I think the public has to be much more discerning about the information that they see on television or what they read in print.”

While no other super PAC has operated in Hawaii with the same level of sophistication as PRP, there have been a number of independent expenditure committees — many of them affiliated with Mitsunaga — that have stirred up drama in local races while at the same time skirting campaign spending law.

In 2016, Mitsunaga bankrolled Save Our City LLC, a super PAC aimed at derailing Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s bid for reelection as he faced off against former Republican Congressman Charles Djou.

The super PAC, which was run by Sarah Houghtailing, the owner of TJ’s Sports Bar & Grill, spent more than $375,000 to oppose Caldwell and violated state campaign spending laws in the process.

Save Our City did not initially disclose Mitsunaga as its largest financier as it was supposed to under state law, and a years long investigation by the Campaign Spending Commission found that the committee had misreported hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. The commission eventually fined Save Our City more than $15,000.

Two years later, Mitsunaga was the primary financier of another super PAC, Defend Hawaii Now, that again ran into trouble with the Campaign Spending Commission.

Defend Hawaii Now supported former U.S. Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa in her bid to unseat Gov. David Ige in the 2018 Democratic primary. The commission fined the PAC more than $5,000 for missing deadlines and failing to file paperwork that detailed its expenses, penalties that were later reduced to less than $2,000 total.

‘If You Don’t Like It You Can Unfriend Me’

Aloha Aina Oiaio came under scrutiny almost immediately after it spent more than $100,000 attacking Amemiya in the lead up to the primary election, and is now the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission into potentially illegal donations.

The super PAC’s assault on Amemiya started in July with mailers, radio ads and a website aimed at tying the candidate to possible corruption just days before primary ballots were sent out to voters. At the time there was little in the way of public information about Aloha Aina Oiaio or its financial backers.

The super PAC’s chairman, according to Campaign Spending Commission records, is Lokahi Cuban, a Honolulu businessman who sells guppies and koi through his company Bloodline Fish Farms.

Screen shot from an Aloha Aina Oiaio advertisement attacking Keith Amemiya.

Screen shot

Cuban refused to participate in an interview with Civil Beat and has a generally hostile attitude toward journalists. He recently threatened Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra with a restraining order after she asked him questions about the people donating to his super PAC. He called a Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter who had written about him “despicable” and “dishonest.”

In a written statement for this story, Cuban told Civil Beat that it was he who was the victim of a smear campaign, and that Amemiya’s accusations about him and his super PAC being corrupt and breaking the law were false.

“Keith Amemiya and his followers have resorted to strong arming, threatening, and silencing anyone who attempts to oppose him in any way,” Cuban said. “Hawaii deserves better than Keith Amemiya and his thugs.”

Cuban appears to have limited participation in Hawaii politics until now. A Civil Beat review of state and federal campaign finance records did not turn up any direct contributions from Cuban to political candidates dating back to 2006, although a distribution and wholesale business registered in Cuban’s name did give $250 to Honolulu prosecutor candidate Megan Kau on Sept. 17, 2019.

Records show he gave $9,500 to Aloha Aina Oiaio to fund the negative campaign against Amemiya. He also made four donations of $500 on the same day in 2014 to Hawaii Solutions, a Republican-backed political action committee that spent money on advertising opposing Democratic candidates running for seats in the Hawaii Legislature and Honolulu City Council candidate Tommy Waters.

In addition to working for Aloha Aina Oiaio, records show Cuban was reimbursed $696.78 for providing mailers to Earl Tsuneyoshi’s campaign for Honolulu City Council. Tsuneyoshi, who lost in the primary, is the brother-in-law of Honolulu City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi.

Cuban proclaimed on Facebook in February that he supported former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s bid for Honolulu mayor “100%.” “If you don’t like it you can unfriend me,” he said. “I could care less.”

Hanabusa had told Civil Beat that Cuban volunteered on her campaign, but that she had no involvement with his super PAC and that she did not condone its tactics.

Accusations Followed By Swift Denials

With Hanabusa now out of the race, Amemiya said he suspects Aloha Aina Oiaio will continue its attacks against him in the general election to the benefit of his opponent, Rick Blangiardi, a former TV executive and general manager of Hawaii News Now who was the top vote getter in the primary.

Amemiya acknowledged that it was his campaign that alerted the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission to possible irregularities in some of the donations Aloha Aina Oiaio had received that may have crossed into illegal territory.

He’s also accused others of secretly influencing the super PAC and pumping money into its coffers, namely Chad Tsuneyoshi and Dennis Mitsunaga.

Rick Blangiardi announces his run for Mayor of Honolulu at Old Stadium Park.

Rick Blangiardi, who’s running for Honolulu mayor, says he’s not involved with the super PAC.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“These types of people are improperly influencing elections and it’s just plain wrong,” Amemiya said. “We need to put a stop to this nonsense and instead focus on the issues. Too many people are being harmed by this malicious behavior and it’s hurting our democratic process.”

Amemiya and his campaign did not provide much proof to back up his assertions.

In Tsuneyoshi’s case the evidence cited by the campaign were unnamed witnesses who saw Tsuneyoshi meeting with Blangiardi at the Waialae Country Club and The Pacific Club around the same time Hanabusa endorsed him for mayor.

Tsuneyoshi is married to Honolulu City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, although she recently filed for divorce, and his company, Pacific Marketing & Consulting, worked on Hanabusa’s campaign. He’s also done work for several other candidates, including his brother, Earl, and former city councilman Trevor Ozawa.

“My concern goes beyond this election. It’s about preventing these types of smears from occurring in future elections that don’t involve me.” — Keith Amemiya

The evidence tying Mitsunaga to the super PAC was equally circumstantial. Amemiya’s campaign pointed to $9,000 in donations that Dexter Sato, of Kaneohe, made to Aloha Aina Oiaio. The campaign said Sato was the president of Punaluu Builders, a company that was once part-owned by Mitsunaga, although they were unable to draw any direct connections to the super PAC.

Both Tsuneyoshi and Mitsunaga denied Amemiya’s allegations and insisted they were not involved with Aloha Aina Oiaio.

“I have absolutely nothing to do with it,” Mitsunaga said in an interview. “Tell them to stop being so desperate.”

He added that if he was involved he would put his name out there the same way he had in the past with Save Our City.

“There’s no proof of fact for anything,” Tsuneyoshi said. “They put ‘alleged’ in front of everything they said because they know it’s not true. What if I said that Keith is related to Donald Trump ‘allegedly’? It’s absolutely absurd. I cannot believe he would say something like that.”

Blangiardi similarly dismissed Amemiya’s accusations. He said he didn’t want to get into the specifics of what was alleged and instead called his opponent’s assertions a “non-news story.”

“I have nothing to do with the super PAC,” Blangiardi said. 

Blangiardi said that he did meet with Tsuneyoshi at the Waialae Country Club and The Pacific Club, but questioned the relevance of Amemiya bringing it up.

“Do you have all the names of the other people I’ve met with at the Waialae or Pacific Club because there are lots of them,” he said. “Chad was involved in Colleen’s campaign and like a lot of other volunteers Chad has chosen to step in and try to help us.”

A Political Miscalculation?

One of the reasons Amemiya wanted to bring attention to Aloha Aina Oiaio, he said, is because of the lack of accountability. While the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission has already subpoenaed documents from the super PAC, it’s unlikely the agency can complete its inquiry before voters cast their ballots. Commission investigations can take months if not years to complete.

Just last month the commission took up a matter involving a false name contribution made more than two years ago during the 2018 election. Unless the laws are changed to allow for more disclosure or the Campaign Spending Commission is allocated more resources to conduct investigations faster, Amemiya said, it’s up to the candidates to fight back as best they can with the information they have.

“Smear campaigns usually start right before the ballots are sent out, so I want to alert the public that the smears against me may continue,” he said. “My concern goes beyond this election. It’s about preventing these types of smears from occurring in future elections that don’t involve me.”

This might not be the best strategy, however.

Martin Hambuger portrait.

Martin Hamburger is a Washington-based political consultant who has worked on several campaigns in Hawaii.

Martin Hamburger is a political consultant based in Washington, D.C. He’s worked on several Hawaii campaigns, including the PRP-led initiative to take down Cayetano in 2012.

In addition to raising doubt in voters’ minds about Cayetano’s past, the super PAC sought to distract him from attacking his opponent, which at the time was Kirk Caldwell. The more time and effort Cayetano put into fighting a faceless super PAC the better.

Hamburger said he sees a similar situation playing out now with Amemiya and Aloha Aina Oiaio. The Amemiya campaign’s attempt to draw connections between the super PAC, Tsuneyoshi and Mitsunaga reads more like a legal brief with loose links and hearsay allegations than a sharpened political attack that will stick in voters’ minds.

In short, Hamburger said, Amemiya missed the point.

“Voters see super PACs as a straw man front for the opposition so when a super PAC attacks Keith Amemiya they think it’s his opponent without question,” Hamburger said. “So if the candidate who is being attacked by the super PAC doesn’t slash back at their opponent then he or she is just confusing people.”

Colin Moore, the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, said Amemiya risks lending more credibility to Aloha Aina Oiaio’s primary election attacks by going after the super PAC now.

Cayetano made this mistake when he was taking on the PRP behemoth, Moore said, but he doesn’t think Amemiya needs to waste the same effort against a much clumsier opponent with far fewer financial resources.

“I don’t see how this helps him win a campaign,” Moore said. “This response to me seems like it comes from emotion rather than strategy. They’ve clearly angered Keith Amemiya.”

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