The CEO of a real estate investment group illegally reimbursed employees for campaign donations made to Honolulu mayoral candidates in 2020, a state investigation alleges.

Since October 2020, staff at the Campaign Spending Commission have been investigating political contributions from JL Capital employees and the company’s CEO Timothy Lee. A commission report signed by Executive Director Kristine Izumi-Nitao alleges that Lee used four of his employees to funnel $4,000 to Keith Amemiya’s campaign for mayor and $8,000 to Kym Pine’s campaign for the same race.

The staff report alleges that Lee reimbursed those employees with checks or cash.

JL Capital took over development of the 400-foot condominium Sky Ala Moana project from the Avalon Group in 2019. When it was first proposed, the development required exemptions from the City Council.

Condominium construction near Ala Moana Center.
The CEO of a real estate development group building the Sky Ala Moana towers made illegal campaign contributions, a state investigation alleges. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The commission has levied eight counts of false name contributions against Lee and was set to vote Wednesday on how to proceed with the investigation but decided to put off a hearing on the investigation until April.

Attorney David Minkin, who is representing Lee, asked for a continuance because he had a court hearing to attend at the same time as the commission’s hearing.

Minkin did not return a message left with his office.

The commission could dismiss the charges, ask for further investigation, or forward a report to the state Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.

Falsifying campaign donations is a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

In a statement, Amemiya’s campaign said that its staff complied with the investigation.

“We were unaware that anyone was being reimbursed for their donation by Mr. Lee,” the statement said.

Pine did not return a message seeking comment.

Gary Kam, the commission’s general counsel, said the Amemiya and Pine campaigns are not under investigation. Kam said he didn’t find any evidence to show that either candidate knew their campaigns accepted falsified contributions.

In March 2020, four JL Capital Employees — Chan Hee Yi, Michael Vachio, Norman Chan and Sydney Jung — each wrote checks for $1,000 to Amemiya’s campaign. A month later, the four employees also donated a total $8,000 to Pine’s campaign.

Lee wrote checks to Yi, Vachio and Jung equal to the amount of the donations they made, bank records obtained by the commission show.

A written statement from Chan attached to the commission’s investigation says that he received $3,000 in cash in an envelope from Lee. That’s equal to the amount of money Chan donated to the two campaigns. The report alleges that the cash served as a reimbursement for Chan’s donations.

Minkin denied that was the case in a letter to the commission earlier this month. Lee fired Chan in June 2020.

“Because the termination occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Lee was concerned for Mr. Chan and provided him a small sum of money to assist with his transitionary period to different employment,” Minkin wrote.

According to Chan’s statement, Lee approached employees and asked them to make donations to Amemiya and Pine.

“Tim approached the entire JL team in the office. With the help of his executive assistant, Chan Hee Yi, checks were gathered from the entire staff,” Chan’s statement said. “Tim strategized the amount of each check. Those employees who had higher salaries should write larger contributions vs. those that did not.”

Another employee told Chan that Lee had previously bundled employee checks, but did not specify for which candidate.

JL Capital employees donated at least $53,000 to campaigns since 2017. Most of those donations came in the last two years and were concentrated around candidates for city offices.

Lee made the most donations of any employee, contributing $22,000 to local campaigns. Recipients of his direct donations include Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, former mayor Kirk Caldwell, Sen. Stanley Chang, Rep. Sylvia Luke, former Honolulu City Councilman Ron Menor, and City Council Chair Tommy Waters.

Lee did not make any direct contributions to campaigns for Amemiya and Pine and only maxed out his contributions to Waters.

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