Dems to return alleged tit-for-tat donation
They are accused of trying to circumvent federal election laws
Seeking to fix a "mistake," the Hawaii Democratic Party will reverse a series of transactions that channeled $5,000 to a Rhode Island candidate for the U.S. Senate, the state party chairman said yesterday.
"We are going to return the funds. We want to rectify this as soon as possible," said state Democratic Party Chairman Brickwood Galuteria, referring to a $6,000 contribution later made to the Hawaii Democratic Party. "We realized we had made a mistake."
Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Sam Aiona said he believes the transaction reported by the Associated Press on Wednesday was illegal.
The Hawaii Democratic Party gave the $5,000 donation to Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown, who is running for the Democratic nomination to the Senate on a clean-government platform. A few weeks later, in January, a mainland donor made a $6,000 contribution to the Hawaii Democratic Party.
Galuteria said the party would seek to get the money back from Brown and return the donation it received from the unidentified donor.
A spokesman for Brown, Matt Burgess, confirmed that his campaign had been asked to return the money to the Hawaii Democratic Party.
Members of the Hawaii party said their error was in supporting a candidate in a primary race rather than a general election, because they do not usually take sides between two members of their own party.
But the party disputes that there was a deal in place to support Brown in exchange for the unidentified mainland donor's contribution, said Jane Sugimura, the party's treasurer.
"We didn't do anything wrong," Sugimura said. "I don't know what the uproar or the fuss is about."
Sugimura earlier told an AP reporter who called from Providence that it was her understanding that the Brown campaign struck a deal in which the Hawaii party gave a donation in exchange for money to be received from Brown supporters. However, Sugimura said yesterday that she did not confirm a tit-for-tat arrangement.
If there was a money exchange to avoid campaign donation limits on individuals, it could violate federal election laws, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors fundraising and spending in political races.
The Brown campaign claims that the funding was not part of a deal to get around campaign finance rules, said Joseph Sandler, the campaign's legal counsel. He said the Brown supporters who solicited the donations to state parties in Hawaii and other states were careful not to suggest that the money be earmarked for the Brown campaign.
The Brown campaign acknowledged that it encouraged donors to give to state parties in Hawaii, as well as Massachusetts and Maine, which also contributed to Brown's campaign, Burgess said.
The identity of the donor to the Hawaii Democratic Party is still unknown. Party officials say they have the name in their records, but they will not know who it is until they look up that information.
Until the identity is released, it is impossible to tell whether the donor had already reached the contribution limit in Rhode Island and was filtering the money through Hawaii to circumvent federal law.
"This is an example of how the private funding of elections is out of control," said University of Hawaii political science professor Ira Rohter. "It's standard operating procedure. You could probably discover this kind of stuff happens all over the states."
Aiona, the GOP chairman, said it would take a state or federal investigation to determine whether any laws had been broken.
"It is our understanding that what occurred with the Democratic Party was illegal. It really makes you wonder what else is going on in their party that we don't really know about," he said.
The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission, which oversees campaign financing, is not likely to investigate this case, because it would fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Commission, said commission Executive Director Barbara Wong. Officials for the FEC could not be reached yesterday afternoon.
Brown has made clean government the central theme of his candidacy.
Just last week, he proposed a program to publicly finance campaigns for federal office, saying special interests had more influence in Washington than regular people. He has also called for the creation of an independent federal ethics commission.
The transactions have been called into question by Brown's political opponents.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Patricia Morgan issued a statement yesterday saying Brown, who oversees elections in his role as secretary of state, "should know better" and that he was trying to bend the rules.
Associated Press reporter Michelle R. Smith in Providence, R.I., contributed to this report.