Former members of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission lashed out against an ad campaign by Pacific Resource Partnership that's targeting former Gov. Ben Cayetano as he sets his sights on becoming Honolulu's next mayor.
"They're just fraudulent (and) bogus," said Bob Watada, who headed the Campaign Spending Commission from 1996 to 2005.
The PRP TV ads make it appear as though Cayetano knowingly stuffed his pockets with illegal campaign contributions during his 1998 re-election bid as Hawaii governor.
PRP claims Cayetano used a "loophole" to forgo paying $543,000 in illegal campaign contributions by closing his campaign committee and turning over the $8,655 that remained to the Campaign Spending Commission. However, Watada said Cayetano and other politicians who closed their accounts were just following the law.
"He did nothing illegal," said Watada. "We would not have closed his account if there were any outstanding liabilities."
The executive director of Pacific Resource Partnership, John White, said in a Tuesday news conference that Watada's assertions don't excuse Cayetano from the pay-to-play culture that dominated Hawaii's political scene during the 1990s and early 2000s.
PRP, which is supported by the Hawaii Carpenters Union, has targeted Cayetano because of the former governor's pledge to kill the city's $5.3 billion rail project.
"I think Bob Watada is a friend of Gov. Cayetano and he wants to put Gov. Cayetano in a positive light," said White. "All we ask is that you look at the record for yourself."
White was U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono's former chief of staff from 2007 to 2009, and like Cayetano, Hirono unknowingly accepted illegal campaign donations totaling $164,265 during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2002. Hirono's campaign committee turned over $95,073.58 to the Campaign Spending Commission, but closed the account before $69,191.42 in illegal contributions could be returned.
White said unlike Cayetano, Hirono closed her campaign committee and ran for a federal office, so the comparison to Cayetano doesn't hold water.
"The Campaign Spending Commission governs state and city campaigns, they don't govern federal campaigns," said White. "I believe the record is out there on any person who's received contributions like that."
Cayetano said White is well aware of the similarities in illegal contributions given to his gubernatorial campaign and that of Hirono, who served as his lieutenant governor from 1994 to 2002.
"It's clear that (White) knew about it, but he didn't mention it because their campaign is designed solely at me," said Cayetano. "Mazie Hirono, as far as I'm concerned, is an honest person."
Watada said it's not up to candidates to decipher whether campaign donors are using real names. Many of the illegal contributions given to Cayetano, Hirono and other local politicians came from fictitious or fraudulent donors.
"We go after the donor who knows that they're giving access contributions, or contributions in the name of another person, and so that's who we fine," said Watada.
Watada confirmed a pay-to-play culture existed during Cayetano's reign as governor, but his investigation never found any direct link to the state's former chief executive.
"I don't think you're going to find a more honest politician in this state," said Watada, who was appointed to the Campaign Spending Commission by Cayetano. "Hawaii is very fortunate in having Gov. Cayetano step up to take a leadership position."
State Rep. Della Au Belatti, a former commissioner with the Campaign Spending Commission, said PRP is engaged in the same pay-to-play scheme that dominated Hawaii politics for the better part of a decade.
"Who are the donors behind PRP Hawaii," asked Au Belatti. "Are they receiving contracts? Have they received contracts, or do they hope to receive contracts from the rail contract? Now that's pay-to-play if the answer is 'yes' to any of those questions."
Au Belatti, a Democrat, called on PRP to immediately pull its ad campaign targeting Cayetano and disclose its list of donors. She also called on Mayor Peter Carlisle and former acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell, both of whom are pro-rail candidates seeking the mayor's office, to publicly condemn the attack ads.
"The other mayoral candidates should denounce, absolutely denounce the misleading tactics being used by PRP Hawaii," she said.
White said Cayetano had an opportunity to reform Hawaii's campaign spending laws in 2002, but vetoed a bill that would have prevented campaign donors from receiving state or country contracts.
"He had a chance to reform the system and he didn't do it," said White.
In his 2002 message to lawmakers, Cayetano said he vetoed Senate Bill 2431 because it only covered the executive branch, and not the state legislature.
"To approve this bill would be to give the public the impression that meaningful campaign spending reform has occurred," Cayetano wrote. "It has not."