Wednesday, October 20, 1999

Legality of
Bishop Estate polls
in doubt

Specific questions
about political candidates
may be deemed prohibited
campaign contributions

By Rick Daysog


Ousted trustees of Bishop Estate, whose cozy relationships with isle lawmakers have come under intense scrutiny lately, are facing a new inquiry into alleged campaign finance abuses.

Sources close to the trust say the attorney general's office is investigating tens of thousands of dollars worth of political polls that may have benefited several current and former state legislators.

The studies, conducted by QMark Research & Polling, were commissioned by the estate to gauge public sentiment on controversial land use and leasehold reform issues, but included specific questions about the political candidates.

An attorney for one former trustee denied any wrongdoing, saying the polls were conducted in the ordinary course of business. But sources said the surveys could be interpreted as unreported campaign contributions, which are prohibited under state campaign spending laws.

Such contributions also are barred by federal laws governing tax-exempt charities. The Internal Revenue Service, which has been investigating the Bishop Estate since 1995, can seek to revoke the trust's charitable status for participating in a political election.

"This is a major no-no," said Randall Roth, University of Hawaii law professor and co-author of the 1997 "Broken Trust" essay which prompted Gov. Ben Cayetano to launch the state's investigation of the Bishop Estate.

"Charities can do a limited amount of lobbying, but there are strict rules against political contributions."

Lawmakers received copies

Sources declined to reveal the identities of the lawmakers, who received the copies of the poll results but did not list them as contributions in their filings with the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Under state law, a poll is considered a campaign contribution if its findings are shared with a limited number of candidates and if its value exceeds $1,000, said Bob Watada, executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission.

The state's inquiry in the trust's polling practices follows its investigation of charges that the Bishop Estate may have indirectly financed thousands of dollars of campaign debts of state Sen. Marshall Ige and former Sen. Milton Holt.

Holt, a former estate employee, recently pleaded guilty to federal mail fraud charges, and Ige now faces misdemeanor charges for violating state campaign spending laws.

Both Ige and Holt are longtime friends of ousted trustee Henry Peters, a former state House speaker. Ex-trustee Richard "Dickie" Wong is a former state Senate president.

In addition to the state's inquiries, the interim trustees of the Bishop Estate are investigating the former trustees' use of political polls for the Dec. 13 trial for the permanent removal of Peters and Wong.

The court-appointed interim board of trustees has alleged that Peters and Wong -- who were temporarily removed from their $1 million-a-year posts in May -- jeopardized the estate's tax-exempt status by failing to resign after the IRS threatened to revoke the estate's tax-exempt status.

Lawyer alleges 'sinister spin'

The interim board -- retired Adm. Robert Kihune, American Savings Bank executive Constance Lau, former Iolani School headmaster David Coon, attorney Ronald Libkuman and former Honolulu police Chief Francis Keala -- recently added QMark executive Barbara Ankersmit and trust employee Laurita Hookano to their list of witnesses for the Dec. 13 trial.

Both Ankersmit and Hookano are expected to testify about polling and other political efforts by the former trustees.

Ankersmit, who has conducted polls for the estate for more than 12 years at QMark and Omnitrack Group Inc., declined comment. But her attorney Jonathan Burge confirmed that QMark's polls included questions that may be construed as political.

He said some polls asked questions about individual lawmakers, although a majority of the questions centered on trust issues. Burge declined to reveal the lawmakers' identities.

Renee Yuen, attorney for Peters, said she is not familiar with the specific work that QMark did for the estate. But Yuen said she saw nothing wrong with polls that gauge public sentiment on major issues and political candidates who have an impact on the estate.

She added that the state and the interim trustees are placing a "sinister spin" on a what amounts to a prudent business practice.

"Wouldn't you want to know who was in office to make intelligent decisions?" Yuen said. "I'm sure that many large companies who have to plans for the future routinely do political analyses."

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