Hawaii Democrats in fundraising triangle
A Rhode Island deal could have broken election laws
Why would Democrats in Hawaii give money to a U.S. Senate candidate in Rhode Island?
Two recent donations involving the Hawaii Democratic Party raise questions over whether there was an effort to circumvent federal election laws to help elect Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown to the U.S. Senate.
Democrats across the country consider the Rhode Island race an important opportunity to chip away at the Republicans' five-seat majority in the Senate.
But Brown hasn't even won the Democratic nomination yet. He faces former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse in a bid to run against incumbent Republican Lincoln Chafee.
The Hawaii Democratic Party contributed $5,000 to Brown despite the fact the local party has carefully avoided giving any support to either of the primary election candidates in their own U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Daniel Akaka and Rep. Ed Case.
Here's what happened:
Sometime in December, the Hawaii Democrats were approached by Richard Pelletier, field director for Brown's campaign, who asked for a donation. The party sent $5,000 to Brown near the end of the year.
Whether by coincidence or by arrangement, a $6,000 contribution came a few days later, in early January, to the Hawaii Democratic Party from a Rhode Island man named Richard Bready, chief executive of Providence-based Nortek Inc.
Bready, a member of Brown's campaign committee, had already given Brown the $4,200 maximum allowed.
If the two donations were part of a deal, Brown stood to gain $5,000 he couldn't have received otherwise, and the Hawaii party would make $1,000 profit.
Since these donations were made public in Associated Press stories from Providence and Honolulu, all parties concerned have decided to give the money back. Brown is now out his $5,000 donation, and the Hawaii Democrats have lost the $1,000 they gained.
Similar contributions were also made from Bready to state Democratic parties in Massachusetts and Maine -- parties that also had given money to Brown. Those contributions also have been or are being returned.
Were the state parties promised reimbursement and profit for their donations to Brown? Or is it just a coincidence? And do these types of donations obey the letter of the law if not its intent?
The treasurer of the Hawaii Democratic Party, Jane Sugimura, initially said she was told by Pelletier that there would be a donation given to the Hawaii state party after she sent a contribution to Brown. Sugimura later denied there was a deal in place to trade the money.
If there was a deal that Hawaii Democrats were to be paid back, experts say they may have violated federal election law.
It's illegal for an organization to pass on contributions in someone else's name, said an official for the Federal Elections Commission.
Brown's spokesman, Matt Burgess, denied any wrongdoing with the donations, but acknowledged the campaign encouraged donors to give to state parties in Hawaii, Massachusetts and Maine, all of which also donated to Brown's campaign.
Questions have been raised about the transactions because Bready was the only donor to give to all three state parties that contributed to the Rhode Island primary campaign, and he's a member of Brown's campaign committee.
Brown said last week he would return a total of $25,000 to the three states.
Sugimura said the Hawaii party has sent a letter to Brown's campaign asking for Hawaii's $5,000. Hawaii already gave the $6,000 back to Bready.
Heads of the Democratic parties in both Hawaii and Maine acknowledged they made a mistake when they got involved in supporting a candidate in a primary race rather than a general election because the party doesn't usually take sides between two Democratic candidates.
But members of the Hawaii Democratic Party claim that if there had been a deal, they would have received Bready's donation before sending their money to Brown.
A key question is whether they knew when they got the donation they also knew they were going to get back the Brown donation plus a tidy profit.
Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Sam Aiona said he hopes the Federal Elections Commission investigates the matter. But the FEC would take up the case only if someone files a complaint.