Honolulu City Council member Romy Cachola is questioning whether a public relations consultant hired by a city contractor to promote Honolulu rail inappropriately used public money to lobby him to support the controversial $5.2 billion project.

The consultant, Bennette Misalucha, pushed Filipino rail supporters to track down Cachola, who is also Filipino, at the Kalihi Open Market last week and pressure him about rail, raising concerns about racial politicking.

Misalucha even included directions to the “outreach event,” a map and instructions for members to wear their “Filipinos for Rail” shirts.

“This is the largest open market on Oahu and draws a lot of our kababayans within that vicinity,” Misalucha said, using the Tagalog word for fellow Filipinos. “We are also hoping to see Council Member Romy Cachola there and impress upon him — in a nice way — how we expect him to support our community by voting for rail on June 6th during the Council meeting.”

In addition to organizing the Saturday market event, Misalucha worked to put ads on two local radio stations as well as in the Filipino-American Chronicle. All of the efforts encouraged Filipino rail supporters to lobby Cachola, who was considered by her to be a “swing vote in four rail-related bills.”

Filipinos now comprise the largest Asian ancestry group in Hawaii, recently passing the Japanese, and are a powerful political entity. The newspaper ad, formatted as an open letter to “Apo (Grandfather) Romy Cachola,” asked him to support rail so Filipino children can “continue to live the American dream.”

“Please note that in doing this,” Misalucha wrote in an email to supporters, “we are going about this with a light, positive touch.”

Misalucha is the president of Red Monarch Strategies Inc., a public relations firm hired as a subconsultant on the rail project. Her firm is among nine HART acknowledges were hired by Parsons Brinckerhoff to do public involvement. Red Monarch’s one-year contract is worth $168,559. In 2010, Red Monarch was hired to do “Community outreach and presentations” for $156,625, a previous Civil Beat investigation found.

Cachola challenged the use of taxpayer money and the connection to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation during Wednesday’s council meeting, sharing Misalucha’s emails with the rest of the council during deliberations on the bill to increase the city’s line of credit from $350 million to $450 million and let rail tap it if needed.

Cachola went on the offensive, questioning HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas and HART Board Vice Chair Ivan Lui-Kwan about Misalucha’s emails.

Among Cachola’s concerns were that taxpayer dollars were being used to fund a pro-rail lobbying effort. Cachola said he was also surprised at the tactic of singling out an individual council member and using his Filipino heritage as a fulcrum.

“I don’t know why this happened,” Cachola said. “We fund (public relations firms) to more or less inform the public. … It’s not to lobby us.”

Grabauskas told Cachola he would investigate the matter immediately. Both he and Lui-Kwan said they doubted the actions of Misalucha were HART-approved.

Grabauskas later told Civil Beat that preliminary reports from his staff found that no public funds were used to buy ads or lobby council members. He added that he would continue to look into the matter, and was dedicated to keeping “advocacy and propaganda” out of the rail project’s public relations strategy.

“What’s important to me is to find out that in no way that firm was acting in official capacity as a part of the rail project,” Grabauskas said.

When asked what his response would be if he found Misalucha’s involvement with a pro-rail group was off the clock, he laughed while saying he wouldn’t infringe on someone’s First Amendment free speech rights.

Misalucha told Civil Beat Wednesday her company has been doing “general community outreach” for the rail project for the past three years and that her involvement has nothing to do with her association with Filipinos for Rail.

“No city resources were used for any effort on Filipinos for Rail, including the ad that was mentioned by Council Member Cachola,” Misalucha said in an email.

Maria Etrata of the United Filipino Council of Hawaii said in a separate email to Civil Beat that the Filipino for Rail efforts “are independent and not sponsored by or affiliated with any government entity, including the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) or its contractors.”

Misalucha said became involved with Filipinos for Rail after it formed a few months ago because she worked with many of the people involved with the group in the past and felt her skills could be beneficial.

“I have been an advocate of this project long before my company became a consultant to the project,” Misalucha said. “I was on the board of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce when it endorsed the project. I continue to strongly believe in it and have spent countless hours of my personal time dedicated to making rail a reality.”

Cachola said he just wants to be reassured that public funds weren’t used to try to sway him on the rail project. He’s consistently voted to approve the project over the years and doesn’t consider himself a “swing vote,” but he has publicly raised concerns about cost and management of the system.

“I’ll leave it up to (HART) to find out whether that’s a proper use of funds,” Cachola said. “If they say it’s not then I guess it’s up to them to police. … I’m not going to dictate to them what I want them to do.”

Cachola said many Filipinos oppose rail and many Filipinos support Ben Cayetano. Cayetano, who was the nation’s first Filipino-American governor, has promised to kill the rail project if elected mayor this fall.

In February, 38 percent of likely Filipino voters supported rail and 47 percent opposed, according to The Civil Beat Poll. That’s slightly more in favor of rail than the population as a whole, which was split 34 percent up and 55 percent down.

In that same poll, Filipino voters supported Cayetano, 60 percent versus 22 percent for Peter Carlisle and 7 percent for Kirk Caldwell. That’s stronger for Cayetano than the split for all voters: 53-21-17.

Cachola shared his own insight on why the Filipino community would vote for Cayetano, aside from rail.

“Well, they like him also for other reasons, because he is a straight bully person. He did a lot for us as governor.”

The council eventually passed the line of credit bill Wednesday after hours of testimony and debate.

Three other rail-related measures, all connected to HART’s budget, later passed quickly with little discussion among council members or testimony from the public. In committee last month, council members amended HART’s operating budget to remove three public relations positions, citing the arsenal of PR subcontractors who do that work already.

Read the consultant’s emails and the advertisement in the Filipino-American Chronicle:

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