Friday, November 12, 1999

Estate polled
districts of its
legislative allies

Election-period surveys may
violate campaign laws and
IRS rules for charities

By Rick Daysog


The ousted trustees of the Bishop Estate conducted political polling campaigns in districts of key lawmakers linked to the trust.

Sources familiar with the polls said the estate spent tens of thousands of dollars for political research targeting areas represented by past House Speaker Joe Souki, former state Sen. Milton Holt, Sen. Marshall Ige, former Rep. Terrance Tom, Rep. Robert Herkes, Sen. Whitney Anderson and former Sen. Donna Ikeda.

'It's good business to know
the community's attitudes with
respect to issues that have an
impact on our operations.'

Henry Peters


The polls -- conducted by QMark Research & Polling -- covered the 1992, 1994 and 1996 election periods and surveyed opinions from 300 to 350 residents in each district.

The attorney general's office and the court-appointed board of trustees of the Bishop Estate are looking into whether the polls violated state campaign finance laws barring unreported campaign contributions.

The interim board also is investigating whether the polls violated federal laws prohibiting charitable organizations like the Bishop Estate from playing a significant role in political elections. The Internal Revenue Service, which has been auditing the trust since 1995, can seek to revoke a charity's tax-exempt status for intervening in political campaigns.

The lawmakers said they were unaware that such polling was conducted on their behalf, and at least one trustee sees nothing wrong with the estate's polling.

But critics said the polls speak volumes about the Bishop Estate's political clout within the legislature.

"This goes far beyond looking after the interests of the trust and the education of Hawaiian students," said Larry Meacham, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a local political watchdog organization.

"Obviously, they were looking to build their own power."

Ousted trustee Henry Peters said there was nothing sinister in the polls, noting that they were conducted to gauge community opinions on issues that affect the Bishop Estate.

Peters conceded that the polls included questions about particular lawmakers but said the studies can't be considered political contributions since none of the lawmakers were given the poll results.

Both Peters and an attorney for former trustee Richard "Dickie" Wong noted that staffers in the trust's government affairs department, and not the trustees, were in charge of developing the polls.

"It's good business to know the community's attitudes with respect to issues that have an impact on our operations," said Peters, a former state House Speaker. Wong is a former state Senate president.

"I don't think we're any different from any institution in this town."

An executive for the QMark polling firm declined comment.

The estate's use of political polls will be a key issue in the Dec. 13 permanent removal trial of Peters and Wong, who were temporarily ousted from their $1 million-a-year posts in May.

The Bishop Estate's interim board -- retired Adm. Robert Kihune, former Honolulu police chief Francis Keala, American Savings Bank executive Constance Lau, attorney Ronald Libkuman and retired Iolani School headmaster David Coon -- has alleged that Peters and Wong jeopardized the estate's tax-exempt status by mismanaging trust assets, straying from the estate's core educational mission and by engaging in a pattern of political intervention.

Sources said the surveys were conducted to measure public opinion on water, land-use and leasehold reform issues but include several pages of questions about individual candidates.

The polls were not conducted on a statewide basis but were limited to districts represented by lawmakers with ties to the trust, sources said. A 1996 QMark billing invoice indicated that the estate surveyed districts represented by Rep. Bob Herkes (D, Puna), former Rep. Terrance Tom, former Sen. Milton Holt, Rep. Joe Souki (D, Wailuku), Sen. Marshall Ige (D, Kaneohe) and Sen. Whitney Anderson (D, Kailua) during that election cycle.

Holt, a Kamehameha Schools graduate, is a former Bishop Estate employee who recently pleaded guilty to a federal mail fraud charge. The charge stems from a campaign finance scheme involving Bishop Estate contractors. Ige, a longtime Peters ally, is facing misdemeanor charges of violating state campaign finance laws involving the same Bishop Estate contractors.

'They obviously played the
political game very strongly.'

Larry Meacham


Until recently, the estate had been paying Tom a $4,000 a month retainer for legal work while Souki received a $132,000 consulting fee in 1996 from Maui developer Everett Dowling, who sold a 100-acre parcel to the Bishop Estate for $5 million.

Herkes is employed by the estate's Big Island subsidiary, Kamehameha Investment Corp., while Anderson's wife, Hannie, works for the trust.

Herkes, Souki and Ige said they were unaware of any polling conducted in their districts by the Bishop Estate and said they were not given any results that may have been conducted by the trust.

Holt, who currently is in federal custody on the mainland, could not be reached for comment, but his attorney Reginald Minn was unaware of any estate polling in Holt's district. An Ikeda campaign official said he was unaware of any polls conducted on her behalf by the Bishop Estate.

Anderson and Tom could not be reached for immediate response.

None of the candidates reported receiving contributions from the Bishop Estate in their disclosures with the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Common Cause's Meacham said he was troubled by the extent of the estate's polling activities. Typically, a statewide poll will include interviews of 500 to 1,000 registered voters. That the estate's polls involved interviews of about 300 respondents for each district underscores the large amount of money that the former trustees were willing to spend.

"They obviously played the political game very strongly," Meacham said.

Randall Roth, University of Hawaii law professor and co-author of the 1997 "Broken Trust" article that criticized the former trustees' management of the estate, said he was concerned about the tax implications of the polls.

In the past, the IRS has sought to revoke a charity's nonprofit status when politics became a major thrust of the charity's activities. In 1998, Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network gave up its tax-exempt status for two years to settle a long-running dispute with the IRS over attempts to organize Christians for political campaigns.

"Unless (the former trustees) have a good explanation, this could be reason to revoke the estate's tax-exempt status," Roth said.

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