Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Grand jury targets
engineering firm

The panel will probe donations
by SSFM, a major city contractor

By Rick Daysog

City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle plans to convene a new grand jury that will target a local engineering firm linked to more than $100,000 in alleged illegal political contributions to Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Potential witnesses contacted by the prosecutor's office said the new grand jury will meet next Wednesday to investigate SSFM International Inc., which also is the subject of campaign finance probes by the state Campaign Spending Commission and a federal grand jury.

Unlike the fact-finding grand jury that has been gathering evidence on the Harris campaign since September, next week's panel has the authority to issue criminal charges, they said.

SSFM's attorney, Steven Hisaka, could not be reached for comment. The Prosecutor's Office declined comment.

Prosecutors have been looking at alleged links between contributions to the Harris campaign and SSFM's work on city projects.

SSFM, which has received about $4 million in city work since 1996, is the city's consultant for the $45 million Central Oahu Regional Park project, which has incurred millions of dollars in cost overruns.

City records reviewed by the Star-Bulletin showed that SSFM's consulting contract for the sports complex soared to $2.5 million from $932,000 as a result of three change-orders.

While the Central Oahu project was under construction, donors linked to SSFM gave more than $100,000 to Harris' campaign coffers, according to a computer-assisted investigation by the Star-Bulletin.

Since 1996, friends and relatives of SSFM's officers made more than two dozen contributions to the Harris campaign. Of those donations, nine $4,000 contributions showed up at Harris' campaign headquarters on Nov. 20 and Nov. 21, 1997.

According to the state Campaign Spending Commission, SSFM officers used a special First Hawaiian Bank checking account to advance money to friends and relatives for many of the political donations.

Under state law, a donor can give no more than $4,000 to a mayoral candidate and $6,000 to a gubernatorial candidate during a four-year election cycle. Contributors also are barred from giving money under false names.

Harris, who had been the Democratic front-runner for the governor's race before he dropped out on May 30, has said that campaign contributions play no role in the awards of city contracts.

Harris' attorney, William McCorriston, has said that Harris was the first mayor in Hawaii to implement a rigorous bidding process that eliminated political influence in awarding contracts.

Besides Harris, people linked to SSFM gave $70,000 to Gov. Ben Cayetano's campaign and $30,000 to Maui Mayor James "Kimo" Apana's campaign during the past six years.

The firm, which is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation that has been placed on the back burner, did not make contributions to Republican candidates.

Since 1996, the Cayetano administration has awarded SSFM more than $700,000 in work while Maui County has issued more than $770,000 in contracts to the firm.

Founded in 1959, SSFM is the state's fourth-largest engineering firm with about $10 million in annual revenues. The firm's executives include former state Comptroller Raymond Sato, ex-Maui Public Works Director George Kaya and former Big Island Public Works Director Hugh Ono.

E-mail to City Desk


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