Limit on donations is struck down
A Maui judge finds last year's decision on campaign gifts wrong
A Maui circuit judge has struck down a Campaign Spending Commission ruling last year that severely restricted contributions from businesses and unions.
Barbara Wong, Campaign Spending Commission executive director, found last year that campaign contributions from a corporation or union were limited to $1,000 during an election period.
That meant corporations and unions could give just $1,000 during a two-year campaign period. Meanwhile, individuals could contribute from $2,000 to $6,000 in a two- or four-year campaign period.
Maui Judge Joseph Cardoza's ruling came May 4 after the commission had said the campaign of Mayor Charmaine Tavares was improperly accepting contributions of more than $1,000.
Cardoza's decision is expected to free up contributions to candidates in the 2008 elections.
William Crockett, a Maui attorney representing the Tavares campaign, said that while Cardoza's written ruling has not yet been approved, the judge had granted his motion and ruled in his client's favor.
"I expect the ruling will say that it was a lawful contribution," Crockett said. "Under Wong's interpretation, no business could contribute more than $1,000. Basically, the judge's ruling is that what the executive director said is wrong."
Wong responded that she had not read the formal ruling, but is contemplating an appeal.
"We have to evaluate the effect it will have on registration of noncandidate committees and the contributions by noncandidate committees. It would have a tremendous impact on the transparency of corporation and company contributions," she said.
Businesses and unions may form so-called noncandidate committees to influence elections but must register with the commission and file disclosure reports.
Although the Campaign Spending Commission was represented in court by the Attorney General's Office, the attorney general also filed a brief with the court supporting Tavares' argument that the commission was in error.
The brief filed by Charleen Aina, deputy attorney general, called Wong's interpretation of campaign spending law "palpably erroneous."
Aina said Wong's interpretation "inexplicably ignores the plain language" of the spending law, which says that candidates may get between $2,000 and $6,000 per election from persons and individuals depending on what race they have entered.
"Businesses are still 'persons' or 'entities,' and HRS 11-204 still allows them as persons and entities to make contributions to candidates," Aina said.
The Attorney General's Office said that if the Legislature had intended to limit contributions to $1,000, the law would have said that and would not have included provisions for larger contributions.
Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who unsuccessfully tried to amended the existing law to stop Wong from enforcing her $1,000 limitation, said she agrees with the attorney's general's brief.
"The Campaign Spending Commission is using convoluted logic to say that corporate contributions were banned by tying the fact that after giving $1,000 corporations must make their contributions through a political action committee and then saying the limitation of $1,000 applied to the corporation giving money to PAC," she said.
Wong said she disagreed with the attorney general's brief and called an appeal "a strong possibility."