Chad Blair: Legislature Finally Seems To Get It On Session Fundraising - 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 or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Too bad it took a bribery scandal that ensnared two of their former colleagues.

Early on the evening of April 5, 2018, the majority leader of the Hawaii state Senate held a campaign fundraiser at Duc’s Bistro in downtown Honolulu. The suggested contribution per attendee ranged as high as $4,000.

Four days later on April 9, nearly 50 donations — most of them totaling $500 but some of them well exceeding that figure — were made to the senator, according to a filing with the Campaign Spending Commission.

The donors read like a who’s who of Hawaii politics, labor, business and government and include the following: Blake Oshiro and Bruce Coppa of lobbying firm Capitol Consultants, Sherry Menor-McNamara of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, Alexander & Baldwin’s political action committee, the ILWU Local 142 PAC, Lynn McCrory of Larry Ellison’s Pulama Lanai sustainability company, the Bank of Hawaii’s Special Political Education Committee, the General Contractors Association of Hawaii PAC and Jennifer Sabas, a lobbyist and the former chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye.

The fundraiser was nothing out of the ordinary for Hawaii circa the spring of 2018, which happened to take place during the legislative session — that is, a time when lawmakers were considering legislation important to these very same folks and many others.

But what makes it worth remarking on five years later is that the majority leader in question was J. Kalani English, and one of the other significant donors was none other than Milton Choy of Fluid Technologies, who gave $2,000 to English.

Pritchett English, Cullen Feb 2022

Choy, of course, is the central figure in the bribery case that sent English to prison for influencing policymaking over wastewater treatment and cesspools.

Choy was in the wastewater business and, as my colleague Blaze Lovell reported in 2022, donated more than $160,000 to at least 55 campaigns since 2014. In addition to Fluid Technologies, the campaign finance records show Choy’s other companies making donations were Tyco Engineered Products and H2O Process Systems.

A second lawmaker, Rep. Ty Cullen, then the vice chair of the House Finance Committee, also pleaded guilty in the bribery case to benefit Choy’s wastewater interests. The year before English’s fundraiser, Choy donated $2,000 to Cullen the same day — March 23, 2017, which also fell during the legislative session — the state rep held a fundraiser of his own at the Oahu County Club.

Some of the same donors to English also gave to Cullen, whose sentencing is expected April 6.

Choy, who pleaded guilty for bribing a Maui County environmental management official to direct contracts to Choy’s business (the official, Stewart Stant, was sentenced to 10 years just last week) is set to be sentenced May 17.

A screen shot from Sen. J. Kalani English’s campaign finance filing for Jan. 1 – June 30, 2018.

To be clear, the donations from Choy were legal. And by law, English and Cullen did not have to disclose the donations until July, long after the session was pau. That means the public did not know about the donations until well after the fact.

Such organized fundraisers — which were often joint affairs involving multiple legislators and lobbyists gathering under one roof, often with food and drink — are no longer allowed during session, thanks to a new law that went into effect Jan. 1.

The enabling legislation, Senate Bill 555, actually went nowhere when it was introduced by Sen. Les Ihara, a longtime good-government legislator, in January 2021. But it was resurrected Feb. 17, 2022, which was just two days after the news broke about English and Cullen. It was not a coincidence.

The new law forbids elected state and county officials from holding any organized fundraiser event — ones that charge a price or suggest a contribution level, just like English and Cullen and most lawmakers used to do for decades — during a regular session or special session. 

Perception Of Influence

As someone who has been nagging about session fundraisers for years, I very much welcome the new law. It was encouraging to see lawmakers frankly acknowledge, as a committee report on the bill neatly explained, that session fundraisers could “create the perception that donations received from fundraisers that are held during those time periods may potentially influence actions being taken on pending legislation.”

It’s too bad that it took a bribery scandal to move them to act, however.

I also wondered if it was a mistake to apply the law not only to state legislators who meet primarily between the third Wednesday in January and late April or early May, as the state constitution requires, but also to other elected officials as defined by state law: governors, lieutenant governor, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and county mayors, county council members and county prosecuting attorneys.

The reason for my concern is that these other officials don’t meet in session per se and effectively are on the clock year round. The Legislature is a part-time gig.

Rep. David Tarnas, chair of the House Committee on Judiciary on Hawaiian Affairs (at left), and Speaker Scott Saiki on Opening Day said the Foley commission bills on reform would be taken up. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

I can see how the new law should cover the administration, which introduces its own legislative package in January and which will indicate what bills it may sign or veto by June. But county officials?

I asked Dan Foley, the retired judge who led the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, about this. (The House established the commission the day after the English-Cullen story broke. That wasn’t a coincidence, either.)

Foley said that the commission recommended in its March 31 interim report that SB 555 ban legislators and candidates for the Legislature from holding fundraisers but also soliciting or accepting funds during sessions.

“We included candidates so not to give an advantage to challengers to incumbents who could not raise funds from January through April,” he explained.

Foley pointed to the same committee report on SB 555 I cited above, and I gave it a closer look. It explains that the committee concluded that, in order to promote transparency and restore confidence in Hawaii’s legislative process — the very things so terribly damaged by English and Cullen — that fundraisers held by all elected officials during legislative sessions “could also potentially have an effect on the outcome of legislation because these elected officials may have an influential role in the legislative process by virtue of their position or, through their position, could affect issues that are before the Legislature.”

That makes sense. So does the committee’s recognition that state senators, unlike House reps, often come back into special session to consider nominations.

Ultimately, the Legislature amended SB 555 to include all elected officials but limited the scope to fundraisers. It also decided not to include candidates for office.

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Is that unfair to incumbents? Maybe. Under the new law (and possibly laws), incumbents will clearly have less time to raise cash.

But the fact is that incumbents historically out-raise challengers by large amounts. In 2018, for instance, the last “regular” election before Covid-19 hit, the 10 Senate incumbents that year raised a total of $1.4 million as compared to the $453,000 raised by the 14 challengers, according to the Campaign Spending Commission.

The same dynamic can be seen in 2018 House races, where 44 incumbents raised a total of $2.2 million to the $592,000 raised by the 47 challengers. Money flows to the powers that be, and I expect it will continue to do so even with the new restrictions.

That’s why all those donors listed at the outset of my column gave all that money to English and Cullen.

That’s why dozens of elected officials who received donations from Choy returned a total of more than $150,000 to the Campaign Spending Commission last year after Choy was exposed.

That’s why the Legislature did the right thing in banning session fundraisers.

And that’s why the House did the right thing last week in fast-tracking House Bill 89, which would ban all elected officials from soliciting and accepting any campaign donations while the Legislature is in session. The bill was proposed by the Foley commission in its final report on Dec. 1 — the report that warned, rightly, that trust in Hawaii government is in a state of “deep moral crisis.”

Another fast-tracked measure from the commission, House Bill 90, would require candidates and political action groups to file public notices for fundraising events no matter the amount of donations being requested. That’s a good idea, too.

Both bills now await a public hearing in Sen. Karl Rhoads’ Judiciary Committee, the only committee the bills need to pass. If the Senate follows the House’s lead, where HB 89 and HB 90 were passed unopposed and unamended, the measures could be on Gov. Josh Green’s desk in a matter of a few short weeks — and before Cullen’s sentencing.

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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 or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

As long as politicians can, they will take $ from individuals, groups, and businesses. This $ seeks legislative decisions that benefits the donors.CB’s 2022 articles on Hu Honua, and on Sen. Dela Cruz and his cohorts forcing SB2510 through AND the post-session "fundraiser" event for Dela Cruz - highlights the unethical political wrangling that is prevalent in Hawaii’s legislature. Yet it was swept under the rug by fellow legislators. Thank you ex-Gov. Ige for vetoing that BS SB2510.And now Voila, Dela Cruz, Inouye, and Wakai return to the 2023 session with SB72 which would again directly benefit Hu Honua, and further hurt constituent ratepayers, casting more dim light on the legislature, undermining what minimal trust might be left.Good article, Chad, thanks. However, to get the corruption OUT of our legislature will require getting the CASH out of our legislature. There are too many loopholes and temptations for politicians.Finally you asked is it fair (to incumbents /candidates) ? The question should be "Is it fair to taxpayers, voters, residents, ratepayers writing their paychecks?"

mdhunt · 7 months ago

Does this law effectively bar county officials, whose session is year-round, from hosting a fundraiser?

NatanyaFriedheim · 7 months ago

The mere discussion in the public is a step in the right direction. I urge the legislature to include that political merchandise, ex. a magnet with a taxi on it that gets slid in one’s direction during a meeting with an elected, should not be allowed as a silent enticement in a government building to mean "pay to play" . Fundraising during session may be the policy issue but there are many sly ways to fundraise without holding an event.Government offices should not be used for fundraising nor should they be used for quid pro quo to garner favor by allied commitments on procurements.Fundraising is an explicit activity, but I raise two real-life experiences with senior elected officials that connote and/ or are relational activities that accompany the expectation for funds to fill the coffers of elected officials. It’s despicable.Fundraising and ethical actions need to go hand-in-hand.

Jessie_3333 · 7 months ago

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