Chad Blair: Lawmakers Are Rushing To Hold Last-Minute Fundraisers Before Session Begins - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

A new law that went into effect Jan. 1 bans elected state and county officials from holding fundraisers that suggest specific contribution amounts for attendance when the Hawaii Legislature is in regular or special session.

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The reason for the law, as the authors of the bill themselves explained, is that “campaign fundraising events held during legislative sessions diminish the public trust.”

But here’s the thing: Legislators can still hold fundraisers up to the very last day before session starts, which this year is Wednesday.

And at least eight lawmakers have done just that: Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz, Gil Keith-Agaran, Joy San Buenaventura, Lynn DeCoite and Jarrett Keohokalole; and Reps. Troy HashimotoKirstin Kahaloa and Cedric Gates. I know this because the Campaign Spending Commission requires legislators to report these fundraisers publicly.

Meantime, lawmakers can still seek and accept donations during session, just not by holding an event with suggested donations.

Many of the same lobbyists who donate money at these very fundraisers are — not coincidentally — wanting to influence the outcome of pending legislation. Civil Beat has been reporting about the practice since we launched in 2010, much to the consternation of some lawmakers who’d prefer to rake their money quietly.

The new law, introduced as Senate Bill 555 from state Sen. Les Ihara, passed the House and Senate unanimously last spring with just two members voting “aye” with reservations. That’s encouraging.

“It closes the door for senators and representatives to pass bills in exchange for legal campaign contributions,” said John Fitzpatrick in his testimony in favor of the legislation. “Many states throughout the country already enacted measures similar to this. Pass this bill and prevent legal bribery from happening at the Legislature.”

“Please, pass this bill,” testified Rexann Dubiel. “It’s too easy to be swayed, just look at English and Cullen. They are the tip of the iceberg.”

That’s J. Kalani English, the former Senate majority leader, and Ty Cullen, the former vice chair of the House Finance Committee, that Dubiel is referencing. You may have heard about them and their guilty pleas for doing exactly what Fitzpatrick expressed worry about.

Even with the new law the public (and nosey reporters like me) won’t know who donated how much to whom until July 31, the earliest reporting deadline required by the Campaign Spending Commission for money raised during the first half of 2023.

Let’s say — hypothetically, of course — a certain major business or union gives beaucoup bucks to a certain major legislator who happens to have direct say over certain bills of certain importance to that business or union. Wouldn’t it be useful for the public (and nosey reporters) to report those donations long before session concludes and the bill’s outcome is a done deal?

Answer: Certainly.

Dela Cruz and Keith-Agaran fundraiser flier Jan 2023
A fundraiser invitation scheduled the week before the 2023 Hawaii Legislature was to open for business. 

‘Where The Money Is’

It’s important to note that lawmakers have already been working on the 2023 session since the results of the November general election were announced. Many of them held fundraisers during that time.

Why do lawmakers choose to hold campaign fundraisers before session begins? Because, to quote Willy Sutton, the late American bank robber, that’s where the money is — in this case, the power center that is downtown Honolulu and where the State Capitol is located. All but one of the aforementioned legislators scheduled a pre-session fundraiser outside of Honolulu in January, even though several of them represent neighbor islands.

The new law — now called Act 283 — is a step toward a more ethical, transparent, accountable Legislature. But legislators can still accept campaign donations during the January-May session, so long as they follow the new law.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, formed by the House following the English-Cullen embarrassment, has recommended several bills to reduce the power of money in politics. They include proposals to prohibit legislators from soliciting and accepting campaign contributions during session.

“If enacted, this proposal would reduce the negative perception of legislators soliciting or accepting contributions from individuals or organizations that have an interest in matters pending before the Legislature during session,” according to the final report by the commission, which was chaired by retired Judge Dan Foley.

There is another proposal to expand the fundraising reporting requirement “for which any price is charged or any contribution is suggested for attendance.” At present, that trigger level is $25, meaning that near endless amounts of smaller donations could be accepted without public notification.

Those are compelling ideas, but I have serious doubts whether the very people who want to raise money would restrict their ability to obtain it.

Which raises the question, why do some legislators need to endlessly raise a ton of dough, even though the vast majority easily win reelection after reelection?

A Campaign Spending Commission analysis of state House and Senate receipts and expenditures reported that in 2018 — the last election year before Covid-19 hit — a Democratic candidate for the House on average raised about $36,000 and spent about $29,000. In the Senate, the figures were respectively $93,000 and $77,000.

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I cite the Dem candidates because Dems have long run things at the Legislature. And some of their war chests are brimming with moolah.

Dela Cruz, the chair of the money committee in the Senate, had nearly $1 million in cash on hand at the end of last year. He just held another fundraiser last week, even though he’s not on the ballot again until 2026 and is perennially and easily reelected.

Political corruption is not limited to English and Cullen or to the Legislature.

But because Dela Cruz runs the money committee, major donors continue to shovel cash into his coffers including Matson Navigation Co., the General Contractors Association of Hawaii PAC, the Hawaii Laborers PAC, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the premier law firm Watanabe Ing.

I am singling out Dela Cruz here, of course. I recognize that other lawmakers and especially first-time candidates struggle to raise money for campaigns. I recognize as well that there is a free speech argument to be made here.

But political corruption is not limited to English and Cullen or to the Legislature. There is the conspiracy involving a former Honolulu prosecutor and an engineering firm. There is the bribery involving a Honolulu businessman and a former Maui County director of environmental management. There are the bribery cases involving former employees of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

I could go on.

“Power is often so tightly intertwined with wealth that they often co-occur in societal structures, particularly in the arena of politics, where power may beget more money and money may beget more power,” Foley’s report states. “It is no small thing to disentangle the two when their influence on each other is longstanding and systemic and where there is now such strong inertia against any system that would jeopardize the wealth of those who hold it or the power of those who wield it.”


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

Where there is a will there is away, so despite legislation to curb in session fundraising, politicians will still be fundraising just not at formal events.

Westocohfd · 1 week ago

Isn't it the case that well-funded candidates such as DelaCruz can take from their own funds to donate to lesser funded candidates in the same party? I believe Brenton Awa commented in an earlier CB post that some of the better funded past and current Republican candidates donated to his campaign. This seems to be a common practice in the US Senate and House races as well. It all seems wrong to me.....

MsW · 1 week ago

County "Pay to play" is also on full display with Kobayashi's fast tracked, proposal to build the tallest building on Oahu in Moiliili with 1000+ units on already super congested Kapiolani, skirting most of the rules on the pretense of providing affordables. They are asking for over $43m in credits and waivers, similar to TOD, which it is not. This will certainly displace low rise, residentially zoned truly affordable rentals. Where will those people go? The streets is my guess.

Concernedtaxpayer · 1 week ago

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