Friday, November 30, 2001

Social uses for election
funds banned

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

Politicians can no longer use campaign funds to attend a union golf tournament or a constituent's retirement party.

The state Campaign Spending Commission voted last week to accept an advisory opinion barring candidates from using their election funds for banquets, golf tournaments and testimonials.

The law is clear, said commission Executive Director Robert Watada. "You cannot use campaign money for personal benefit," he said.

Some candidates may argue that they use these events, often nonprofit organizations' fund-raisers, as forums for politicking or as public service, Watada acknowledged.

But candidates, or their representatives, should not be allowed to eat meals, play rounds of golf or receive some other benefit from such contributions, he said.

Another excuse used by candidates, particularly incumbents, is that they need to attend these events because of their status in society. However, Watada said, all people feel certain social obligations such as gift-giving at Christmas, regardless of whether they are politicians.

Political candidates may still contribute to nonprofit agencies or other entities such as a championship trophy for a youth athletic team or a straight contribution. They just will not be able to derive personal benefit from such acts.

Watada said some candidates have contributed up to $5,000 toward banquets and golf tournaments.

Candidates will also still be allowed to use campaign money to purchase up to two fund-raiser tickets for another campaign as provided by election rules.

Officials with three of Hawaii's political parties gave mixed reviews of the opinion.

Micah Kane, executive director for the Republican Party of Hawaii, said the interpretation is a good thing philosophically.

"When somebody makes a contribution to a campaign, I think a candidate needs to respect that the contribution has to be used for that specific campaign's activities," Kane said.

Kane said he does not expect the opinion to have much impact on Republican candidates.

Ira Rohter, co-chairman of the Hawaii Green Party, said he commends the commission for attempting to "plug up this leaky faucet."

Contributions made by candidates, regardless of whether they get anything in return, amount to nothing more than "buying votes."

Lorraine Akiba, chairwoman of the Hawaii Democratic Party, said that "in today's world there needs to be some flexibility" in how contributions are spent.

However, Akiba said, the opinion provides clarity and allows all candidates to abide by the same rules.

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