The man who has injected decade-old campaign finance issues and pay-to-play corruption allegations into the heart of the heated Honolulu mayoral race is now the subject of a probe into how more than $20,000 was spent during his unsuccessful run for Honolulu City Council two years ago.

Pacific Resource Partnership Executive Director John White took money out of his campaign in the final days of his tight race against Ernie Martin. The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission has asked White for documentation to back up his contention that the cash was used to pay phone-bankers, door-to-door canvassers and sign-wavers as part of a final get-out-the-vote push.

“They would have to have paperwork for that. They would have to show receipts. I don’t know how else they would show it. We would need some proof that that money was given to a person for services for the campaign. The commission requires the proof of the expenditure,” Spending Commission General Counsel Gary Kam told Civil Beat.

“This is the kind of stuff, when it comes to payments to candidates themselves, when they write checks to cash, that’s the kind of things that catch my attention,” he said.

If White is able to provide documentary evidence, including the names of the campaign workers and how much they were paid, the canvassing and phone-banking would be considered legitimate expenditures and he would be cleared, Kam said. Campaign spending reports would then need to be amended to reflect the true recipients of the funds.

“I absolutely think it was done above board,” White told Civil Beat when asked about the spending in question. “Because it was such a short period of time, and because it was my understanding that if you pay someone less than $600, you don’t need to do a 1099 form … sometimes we used cash as a way to pay for it.”

Even if White is eventually cleared, the probe is an ironic twist considering campaign finance improprieties and faulty bookkeeping is the issue White has played up most as he’s become arguably the fourth most important name in the mayoral campaign — after the three men running for the office. The pro-rail, union-trade organization White heads has spent more than $500,000 on television ads this year, some of which have attacked anti-rail mayoral frontrunner Ben Cayetano for his record as governor.

The main plank of the Read Ben’s Record campaign was the spot reminding voters that Cayetano’s 1998 re-election campaign received $540,000 in illegal contributions.

Cayetano has never been accused of doing anything wrong and is not legally required to pay back that money, according to the spending commission. But White has insisted Cayetano is exploiting a “loophole” in campaign finance law and has a moral obligation to turn over funds from his mayoral campaign. White has also said Cayetano allowed “pay-to-play” corruption to exist in his administration as governor — something Cayetano vigorously denies — and that the culture would return to Honolulu Hale if Cayetano is elected the city’s mayor.

The commercial and the candidates’ responses to it have become a central issue in the race.

Mayor Peter Carlisle and challenger Kirk Caldwell have both seized on the “pay-to-play” allegations against Cayetano in debates. Most recently, Carlisle asked Cayetano why he didn’t end the corruption when he was governor. Cayetano shot back that Carlisle, then Honolulu’s prosecutor, “should have indicted me and arrested me and sent me to prison” if he did anything wrong.

Earlier this month, retired Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Bob Watada flew to Hawaii from Oregon and headlined a Cayetano press conference to set the record straight. He called PRP’s ad “fraudulent, bogus” and said Cayetano is the most honest politician he knows. Cayetano and allies have criticized White personally for his involvement in the attacks.

It’s in that context that the new campaign finance probe fits.

“I know Cayetano’s camp is trying to imply things about my race for council, they’re trying to make inferences that it raises questions about what I’m saying about them,” White said. “At the end of the day, someone may have asked that question (about campaign expenditures) and I have to be able to defend it.”

But Cayetano wasn’t the source of the Campaign Spending Commission’s concerns. Civil Beat called the commission with questions about the large amount of money White appeared to be paying himself in the 2010 report. Kam reviewed the report in order to answer Civil Beat’s questions and said he was starting an investigation.

Two of White’s campaign staffers who led the get-out-the-vote efforts say they didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the final days of the 2010 race. Their names and phone numbers were provided to Civil Beat by White.

“To me, it seemed legit and professional. We had to submit everything every day, so it didn’t seem like anything was sketchy or anything like that,” Will Kane, White’s field supervisor in 2010, told Civil Beat.

Kane said he was the guy in charge of actually paying the campaign workers — $100 per day for the first five days of the get-out-the-vote push and either $125 or $150 per day for the final two days. Each day, he gave White the tally of how many folks had worked, and White gave him cash to distribute to the workers. Kane said he maintained a list of who worked each day, along with their contact information.

“Every day, we’d have to submit in the reports from each person, they would submit reports about how many phone calls made, how many houses canvassed,” he said. “So we’d collect all of those and that’s how we’d justify what we spent.”

Another campaign staffer, field captain Alex Sumberg, said he doesn’t remember personally handling any money. He said he coordinated a team of supporters ranging from 20 to 40 on any given day to go door-to-door, make phone calls and wave signs.

“It was a typical field operation, it was a typical get-out-the-vote operation,” Sumberg said. “This stuff was handled properly, as far as I know.”

The work sometimes lasted from 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. so the workers could cover the expansive district White was seeking to represent. District 2 includes portions of Central and Windward Oahu as well as the entire North Shore.

In all, White’s final campaign finance report covering the final two weeks of the 2010 campaign includes 10 itemized expenditures identifying him as the recipient of campaign money. Nine were for “employee services” further described as “Get out the vote activities” and the other one was under the “food & beverages” heading and paid for “refreshments for canvassers.”

The 10 expenditures, all between Oct. 25 and Nov. 1, totaled $21,090.

Date Category Purpose of Expenditure Amount
Oct. 25 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $1,500
Oct. 26 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $1,800
Oct. 27 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $1,300
Oct. 28 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $2,450
Oct. 29 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $2,400
Oct. 30 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $2,875
Nov. 1 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $5,250
Nov. 1 Food & Beverages Refreshments for canvassers $515
Nov. 1 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $1,500
Nov. 1 Employee Services Get out the vote activities $1,500
Total $21,090

Source: Friends of John White, Schedule B, Final Election Period October 19 – November 2, 2010

In the end, the push wasn’t enough.

White lost by a mere 47 votes out of more than 22,000 votes cast. Martin has since been chosen as his peers to be chair of the council.

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