The first glimpse in more than a decade into former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano’s financial backers shows he can still count on some old friends for support.

From Jan. 1 through June 30, Cayetano raised more money — $900,000 — than the other two candidates running for mayor combined.

Same goes for Cayetano’s remaining campaign bank account. At $614,000, it was more than Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s and Kirk Caldwell’s stockpiles put together with six weeks left to go until the Aug. 11 election.

But the campaign spending data also shows Caldwell, not Cayetano, had the greater success with a small group of donors whose support for the governor was so fervent in the 1990s that they violated campaign finance law.

And while Cayetano still bristles at his name being linked to those past indiscretions — he was never found to have violated any laws — the allegations surrounding those decade-old donations have resurfaced in the current mayoral race.

Much of the noise has come from political attack ads paid for by the pro-rail, union group, Pacific Resource Partnership. Radio and TV spots insinuating wrongdoing by Cayetano are playing frequently on Honolulu stations. PRP has spent more than $500,000 on pro-rail and negative campaign ads against Cayetano, who has said he will stop the rail project if he’s elected mayor.

Now both Carlisle and Caldwell are picking up PRP’s line of attack.

Most recently, Carlisle raised the spectre of a “pay-to-play” culture during a televised debate Tuesday. Carlisle and others have suggested that bidders received government contracts based on campaign contributions to politicians including Cayetano who was governor from 1994 to 2002. Cayetano has consistently denied he steered contracts to campaign donors and says he had nothing to do with who received contracts.

“Brother Ben, (former Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director) Bob Watada and I ended the pay-to-play culture in 2000 when I was in the prosecutor’s office,” Carlisle said while directing a question toward Cayetano. “You could have ended this culture three years earlier when you were governor and all this was happening, but you didn’t do it. Why not?”

“I didn’t end this culture? Give me a break, Peter,” Cayetano responded. “Watada has already … said I was the most honest politician that he knew and that I had nothing to do with this. As a matter of fact, the person who I think should be answering that question is Mr. Caldwell, because he has received significant contributions from the very people who have been charged with improper conduct in terms of violating the campaign spending law. He has solicited funds for this race from people who are being pilloried by PRP in the news media.”

Illegal Donors of Yesteryear

Cayetano has begun to fire back at critics over the $540,000 in illegal contributions his campaign received while he was running against Linda Lingle in 1998.

Other politicians, including Jeremy Harris and Mazie Hirono, also were informed by the Campaign Spending Commission that some donations they had received had been illegal.

Some donors gave more than the maximum allowed and others used fake names to skirt the law. The contributors were penalized and the politicians were instructed to turn over the illegal donations or whatever they had left in their accounts.

Cayetano had already spent the money when the violations were discovered but he wrote a check for about $9,000 before shutting down his committee.

Even though Cayetano was never found to have done anything wrong, he said at a press conference last week that he’s taken steps to make sure would-be contributors in the mayoral race comply with campaign finance laws.

An example of this is his campaign reminding potential donors of the state’s contribution limits on solicitation letters. He also said he did not believe he’d received many contributions from the same people who had previously made illegal contributions to his campaign for governor.

“We’re trying to be very careful because we know these other guys are waiting for us to make a mistake,” he said. “The stakes are very big here.”

A Civil Beat review comparing 1998 campaign donors who were found to have violated the law with contributors in the 2012 mayoral election shows some overlap. The three current candidates received 11 contributions in the first half of this year from individuals who were penalized previously. Eight totaling $16,500 went to Caldwell and three totaling $8,000 went to Cayetano.

Two of the former violators, SSFM International President Michael Matsumoto and ECS Inc. President Lennox Nishimura, gave $2,000 apiece to Cayetano. But both Matsumoto and Nishimura gave the maximum of $4,000 to Caldwell.

While there’s nothing to indicate that any of the past campaign spending law violators are breaking any rules with their new donations, Caldwell’s campaign said it has mechanisms in place to ensure that any illegal contributions are returned.

“If we did receive contributions from individuals who made illegal contributions to Ben Cayetano in the past, we will make sure that these contributions are 100% legal or they will be returned,” Caldwell’s campaign said in an email. “I hope the other two campaigns are doing the same.”

Mitsunaga and Associates

Cayetano is also taking offense at another accusation by PRP and other critics that the presence in the campaign of his long-time friend and major donor, Dennis Mitsunaga, is evidence that the pay-to-play culture still exists.

Mitsunaga was never found to have violated campaign finance law and hasn’t been part of the debate over Cayetano’s 1998 illegal donors. But opponents link him to possible past corruption, something that has recently been exacerbated by comments from Bob Watada, the former executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission.

Some of Cayetano’s largest fundraising comes from more than a dozen individuals connected with Mitsunaga.

More than 100 contributors gave the maximum $4,000 allowed to Cayetano. Nine of those were people who listed the same firm — Mitsunaga & Associates Inc. — as their employer. Those donors were:

  • Executive Vice President Aaron Fujii
  • Vice President Chad McDonald
  • Project Engineer Bert Mitsunaga
  • Vice President Chan Mitsunaga
  • President Dennis Mitsunaga
  • Engineer Lois Mitsunaga
  • President Glenn Okino
  • Office Manager Terri Otani
  • Vice President Steven Wong

Mitsunaga & Associates Designer Arnold Koya and Project Engineer Brycen Oi also gave $2,000 apiece, bringing the company’s contributions up to an even $40,000. A Joann Fujii listing the same address as Aaron Fujii gave $4,000 to Cayetano, as did a Joyce Okino listing the same address as Glenn Okino, bringing the total amount of the contributions to $48,000.

Every contribution was recorded on the same day: May 25. That was four days after a Cayetano fundraiser at the Japanese Cultural Center that Dennis Mitsunaga had invited guests to attend. He identified himself as “Finance Chair” in the letter.

Mitsunaga is highly connected in Hawaii, so much so that his daughter, Lois Mitsunaga was able to reserve Washington Place, the governor’s official residence, for her wedding earlier this year.

Put together, the Mitsunagas, their employees and related groups have contributed at least a quarter of a million dollars to various (mostly Democratic) candidates for state and county offices in Hawaii in the past six years, according to a Civil Beat analysis of campaign spending data.

In 2010, Caldwell was the recipient of some of that cash, pulling in $4,000 apiece from Chan Mitsunaga, Dennis Mitsunaga, Aaron Fujii, Glenn Okino and Terri Ann Otani and another $3,000 from Lois Mitsunaga.

Other beneficiaries of Mitsunaga largesse are Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, City Council member Ann Kobayashi and others.

Some of Mitsunaga’s contributions, particularly those made in the past, drew the attention of the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Watada, who lives in Oregon, was in Honolulu recently and appeared at a Cayetano press conference to dispute the PRP commercials alleging corruption. Watada said there were rumors of Mitsunaga being involved in pay-to-play arrangements with the Cayetano administration, but that he was never able to prove anything.

“I know Dennis Mitsunaga … He was pretty clever. If he did make excess contributions, we couldn’t find it,” Watada told Civil Beat. “But the reason I remember him is his companies were getting a lot of contracts. We were looking for contributions that he may have made in another name or something else. But that’s one that we couldn’t find.”

PRP has been airing radio ads in the last few days that use a recording of Watada’s remarks from the recent press conference to hammer Cayetano, implying that Cayetano allowed a culture of corruption to continue. Watada made clear at the press conference that he thought PRP was wrong and that earlier allegations about Cayetano exploiting a loophole in campaign finance law were “bogus.”

Mitsunaga hasn’t shied away from the allegations that have been lodged against him. For instance, in 2004, the Honolulu Advertiser reported that Mitsunaga said he’d taken and passed a lie detector test proving he never steered contracts to select contractors as part of a pay-to-play system for city and state government jobs.

Civil Beat was unable to get in touch with Mitsunaga. Messages left for Lois Mitsunaga, Terri Otani and Chad McDonald were not returned. An email sent to the Mitsunaga & Associates general inbox received no immediate response.

In an email to Civil Beat, Cayetano said he was “long-time friends” with Dennis Mitsunaga. Cayetano also said Mitsunaga supports him because “he believes in me.”

“While others were found to have engaged in wrongdoing, the campaign spending commission investigated Dennis thoroughly and found he did nothing wrong,” Cayetano said. “He even took and passed a lie detector test and made the results public. Do you think it’s fair to him and his family to bring up 15-year-old ‘rumors’ again?”

Donors who maxed out contributed $448,000 to Caytano’s campaign, more than half of all the money he raised.

Asked why so many people are willing to contribute the maximum, Cayetano said it all comes back to rail and spending.

“Many of these donors are very concerned over the reckless spending going on at the city,” he wrote in an email. “For the first time I’ve gotten contributions from people who don’t usually support me: Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives and business types who agree with me on the rail issue. For example, I received two $4,000 contributions from a high tech businessman and his wife who I hardly knew and are strongly opposed to rail.”

The next campaign filing reports for the Honolulu’s mayor’s race are due at the end of the month.

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