Follow the money,
if you can
The state Campaign Spending Commission keeps a tally of how many scofflaws have copped a plea. The ever-growing list of conciliation agreements and fines collected makes the case that Hawaii has a chronic problem with political money.
The figures compiled by the state show that 98 persons and organizations have signed conciliation agreements, essentially acknowledging that they have violated the campaign spending laws and agreeing to pay a fine.
A total of $1,576,200 has been collected, with the largest fine coming from Michael Matsumoto, president of SSFM International, Inc., one of state's largest engineering firms. The companies and persons gave local politicians, including former Mayor Jeremy Harris, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and former Maui Mayor Kimo Apana, more money than legally allowed.
They did this by dancing around the law, giving the money in the names of family members, spouses and employees.
Hawaii's political fund-raisers have spent decades awash in this moral ambiguity, where everyone knows they have to launder donations under fake names, and Hawaii's politicians have equally pretended that someone's employees, relatives and expired grandparents actually cared so much about their political lives as to donate.
A series of bills in the Legislature is designed to address this situation. There are always a series of bills about campaign spending, but as Gov. Linda Lingle said of campaign reform: "I just don't think you can legislate honesty; if people are cheaters, they are cheaters."
But legislators legislate, and the two ideas moving forward this year would either clamp down on who can give, or simply give state money to political candidates that agree to abide by certain restrictions.
The "give everybody money" plan, dubbed Clean Elections, is supported by groups ranging from The League of Women Voters, the Interfaith Alliance and the AARP. The plan also has drawn the ire of the Hawaii Christian Coalition, which contends that "it would be immoral for Christians" to give tax money to candidates who might favor abortion or right-to-die laws.
"Giving away Christian tax-dollars to radical single-issue candidates will prove unconstitutional," the HCC's Garrett Hashimoto said in an e-mail.
While the campaign spending debate is rapidly polarizing, the simplest reform idea, transparency, is being discarded.
Strong reporting requirements are the basics of good campaign spending laws, but still Hawaii senators and representatives have exempted themselves from electronic reporting and from requirements that all donations be 100 percent traceable. If every candidate had to file a report via the Internet that would let anyone immediately find out exactly where every dollar came from, the system would be cleanly, honestly and simply reformed.
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Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org