Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Wack-a-Mole—HB128 takes us back to the bad old days, and reveals a conflict of interest

by Larry Geller

Wack-A-Mole at the Hawaii State Legislature Well, the $50,000 and $25,000 corporate spending limits are indeed gone from HB128, though its trip through the Judiciary and Government Operations Committee (JGO) and then conference committee could see anything happening. Since JGO proposed the current amendment, posted on the Capitol website, it’s likely that this is the form they’d like the bill to have when it exits their committee.

Tunnel of LoveBut we must remain vigilant. The language may be restored in conference committee.

A conference committee is like those dark “tunnels of love” they used to have in Coney Island. What goes on inside is nobody’s business, by design. In its time, the ride was a chance for young people (or couples of any age) to get away with stuff they couldn’t do in the daylight.

And so it is for our state legislature.

Yes, the corporate contribution language can’t seem to survive in the sunshine, but watch out for the obscurity of that conference committee!

We’ll bring you the names of conferees, if they are appointed, so you’ll know who was up to what, even if we can’t actually see them smooching.

The current draft amendment is a long, tough read. But sharp eyes have detected that Rep. Karamatsu’s dream of playing Santa Claus with campaign funds may be shared by the Senate.

On page 63 (of a 94-page bill) we find that politicians may use campaign contributions:

(3) To make donations to any community service, educational, youth, recreational, charitable, scientific, or literary organization; provided that in any election period, the total amount of all contributions shall be no more than twice the maximum amount that one person may contribute to that candidate pursuant to section 11-_46; provided further that no contributions shall be made from the date the candidate files nomination papers to the date of the general election; (4) To make donations to any public school or library; provided that any donation under this paragraph shall not be subjected to and counted towards the limit imposed in paragraph (3);

(4) To make donations to any public school or library; provided that any donation under this paragraph shall not be subjected to and counted towards the limit imposed in paragraph (3);

Sounds cool…. not! Those contributions were made by ordinary people, they were not intended for incumbents to deal out benefits in exchange for photo-ops at schools. When they buy uniforms for the school teams, everybody loves them.

And suppose, after funneling money in the direction of a non-profit, the incumbent goes on to work for that non-profit after leaving office (thereby becoming a personal beneficiary of the contributions)? State legislators are not allowed to put campaign contributions into their own pockets, but this gives them interesting options.

Speaking of deja vu, this is the kind of thing that got former Senator Cal Kawamoto (whose name was invoked by Rep. Karamatsu in an embarrassing video) indicted.

I’m going to lean on David Shapiro’s fine writing twice in this post. First, his reaction to Karamatsu’s speech in the video. This was printed in the Advertiser on February 25, 2009, Feeding off corporate campaign donations:

Karamatsu invoked fond memories of discredited former Sen. Cal Kawamoto, who was cited by the Campaign Spending Commission for buying votes with charitable donations, among other violations, and then tried to pass legislation limiting the commission's oversight of legislators.

"You guys put pressures ... on how much we can give to nonprofits. If not, we get busted like Cal Kawamoto," Karamatsu griped. "Every time we're getting sex-abuse fundraising letter and domestic violence fundraising letter ... He helped all these kids, and he got blasted for it. You're tying our hands on what we can do here."

Voters got tired of Kawamoto's campaign spending shenanigans and gave him the boot in 2004 by a huge margin.

So how do legislators respond to this clear message from voters? They put Cal Kawamoto Jr. in charge of the Judiciary Committee to try to legitimatize the unethical practices Kawamoto was booted for.

Well, Rep. John Riki “Kawamoto” Karamatsu will get his way if this bill becomes law and the charitable contributions it mentions become legit.

But let me take you back to Shapiro’s Volcanic Ash from June 19, 2007, Charity's easy from someone else's wallet. As you read this, keep in mind that Sen. Brian Taniguchi, mentioned in the article, is chair of the JGO committee that proposed this amendment and that will hear (and pass it) on Thursday:

I was amazed by how much community recognition for generosity [politicians] were getting as they hopped from graduation to graduation. Similar donations were going to Little League teams, social service programs and ethnic community centers.

And it wasn't even their own money; the pols were spending cash other donors had given to their campaigns.

To me, it's just a sanitized form of vote-buying — one of the many unfair advantages incumbents have over their challengers — and I'm glad to see the state Campaign Spending Commission cracking down on abuses of the practice.

The commission fined Sen. Brian Taniguchi $950 for exceeding the $4,000 limit on total charitable donations from campaign funds during an election cycle.

Taniguchi's donations were $3,000 over limit and seemed to be an honest mistake, but the panel is investigating other cases involving larger amounts, including one in which the limit purportedly was exceeded by $17,000.

There's something fundamentally wrong with politicians sucking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions out of the community, then recycling the money back into the community to selected groups where they curry the most favor.

It's a practice ripe for abuse, such as when former state Sen. Cal Kawamoto was accused of transferring campaign assets to a community organization he controlled and had access to after he was voted out of office.

If campaign contributors want to donate to community charities, they are free to do so without funneling the cash through middle-man politicians. And if elected officials want credit as philanthropists, they're welcome to do it with their own money.

I quoted David Shapiro at length because I can’t say it better.

Nothing has changed. There is still something fundamentally wrong with legitimizing charitable contributions that help cement incumbents into their seats.

So let me ask readers, as I often do, to email your state senators, or better yet, submit testimony on this bill. Submitting testimony is easy—instructions are on the bottom of the hearing notice. But do it soon, please.

If you’d rather call or email, Senator Taniguchi’s office can be reached by phone at 808-586-6460, or by fax at 808-586-6461, or you can email him at sentaniguchi@Capitol.hawaii.gov. You can reach all senators at sens@capitol.hawaii.gov.

The conflict of interest?

Senator Taniguchi would seem to have an obvious conflict of interest, since he was fined for the matter now to come before his committee to be sanitized. Why not ask him to recuse himself and not participate in the hearing of this bill, nor should he vote on it. You can email that idea to him at the link above, and also to Senate President Colleen Hanabusa at senhanabusa@capitol.hawaii.gov.

Please help by sending your testimony or making that call soon. And thank you for standing up for good government in Hawaii.



Maybe this is our age difference. You see coney island, I see hallucinogenics. This sleight of the invisible hand makes me think of Donovan's song: "First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is." Oh Juanita! I call your name....

We lived in Coney Island. There had been a big Tunnel of Love there, but it was probably closed by the time we got there.

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