Sunday, June 24, 2001

R.M. Towill Corp. was awarded a $2.9 million contract to manage
the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. The management firm
has received $16.7 million in city work since 1996. Towill employees
and their family members made a total of 53 contributions
totaling $42,450 to Harris' campaign coffers.

Harris funds

His big donors were the
beneficiaries of large city contracts

See also:
Failed bill banned contractor donations;
Family ties run strong on donations

By Rick Daysog

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris has raised nearly $750,000 in political contributions from people linked to companies that have received business from the city, including waitresses and a Maryknoll School student who donated thousands of dollars each.

Since 1996, the Harris campaign has collected $748,837 from individuals connected to dozens of local construction companies, engineers, architects and law firms that were awarded substantial city contracts, according to a computer-assisted examination by the Star-Bulletin.

The amount is more than a quarter of the $2.98 million that the Harris campaign raised between 1996 and 2000.

During the same span, the companies received more than $200 million in city work, which ranged from simple playground repairs to the consulting contract for the $300 million expansion of the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

"These numbers are so high it's obvious what's going on. Who would be giving out that kind of money without expecting any kind of return?" said Craig Holman, senior policy analyst at the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law. Holman often consults congressional staffers on bills seeking to reform the nation's campaign finance laws.

"In terms of appearance of corruption, this reeks of it."

Harris was on vacation and unavailable for comment. But Ben Lee, city managing director, denied any connection between political contributions and city contracts.

People contribute to the mayor's campaign because "they like the mayor and they like what he's doing," Lee said.

Several of the city's large contractors do not contribute any money to the Harris campaign but get millions of dollars in business, said Lee. He noted that Harris long ago ordered his cabinet appointees not to solicit campaign donations.

He said the Harris administration follows strict guidelines that ensure city contracts are awarded fairly.

That sentiment is echoed by Harris' campaign officials.

"No one ever comes to me and says 'Gee if I make a contribution, will I get contract X, Y and Z?' ... If somebody ever does that, they're not welcome," said Peter Char, assistant treasurer of the Harris campaign. Char said the amount of contributions linked to local consulting firms is not unusual.

"We approach anybody who is willing to give a contribution. Do we specifically target somebody? No."

Harris has served as mayor since 1994 when former Mayor Frank Fasi resigned to run for governor. Harris has announced his intention to run for governor as a Democrat in 2002.

The city's largest construction jobs are subject to a competitive process in which the lowest bidder is awarded the contract. But many of the consulting contracts for engineering, architecture, landscaping and legal services are awarded on a nonbid basis.

Those types of consultants showed up often in the Star-Bulletin's examination of public records involving campaign finance practices. The examination, which covered 3,200 political donations to the Harris campaign and more than 1,500 contracts awarded by the city, found:

>> Ten companies -- AES Design Group Ltd., Austin Tsutsumi & Associates Inc., Belt Collins Hawaii Ltd., Brownlie & Lee, Community Planning Inc., Delta Construction Corp., Hida Okamoto & Associates Inc., Toft Wolf Farrow Inc., Mechanical Engineers of Hawaii Corp., and two companies linked to Geolabs Inc. -- made corporate contributions that exceeded the $4,000 legal limit for the mayor's race. Excess contributions from Belt Collins and the Geolabs affiliate companies were refunded by the Harris campaign after they were cited by the state Campaign Spending Commission.


>> Another 36 firms failed to file disclosure statements with the state Campaign Spending Commission listing their contracts and corporate political contributions. State law requires all contractors to register their political contributions with the commission if they receive more than $50,000 in work from the state or the counties.

>> Between 1996 and 2000, employees at the Geolabs and its sister companies made more than 41 personal contributions totaling $62,400. including a $2,000 political donation from a teen-ager whose father is a Geolabs executive. At the time, the teen-ager was a student at Maryknoll School.

>> Three workers at a Moiliili Chinese restaurant that was once partly owned by the patriarch of the R.M. Towill Corp. engineering firm donated $3,000 each. Meanwhile, R.M. Towill employees and their relatives made 53 contributions totaling $42,450.

"This has been going on forever and ever. Unfortunately it's just been brought to greater heights and larger amounts," said Lowell Kalapa, executive director of the independent Tax Foundation of Hawaii. Kalapa recently criticized the Harris administration's massive construction budget.

"It's quite obvious by the pattern of campaign contributions that if you want work from the state or city government, you have to be a major contributor."

A vast majority of the contributions reviewed by the Star-Bulletin did not come directly from the corporations themselves but were made by top executives and their spouses. The practice is legal so long as the companies are not coordinating the employees' donations or are not reimbursing workers for the contributions.

Several contractors said their employees' contributions were unrelated to any work they conducted for the city. They said workers contributed to politicians on their own and were not reimbursed for the contributions, although a few conceded that giving political donations is part of the local business culture.

"It's just part of doing work in Hawaii," said Ken Kobatake, president of Delta Construction Corp., whose company has been awarded more than $30 million in city construction since 1996 through competitive bidding.

"I don't believe it's any different anywhere else."

That view is not shared by the Campaign Spending Commission, which is looking at several contractors' contributions to the Harris campaign.

Although there is no formal investigation, the commission recently cited 11 companies and individuals who gave more than the $4,000 limit to the Harris campaign.

Harris officials returned the excess contributions at the request of the commission. They also voluntarily turned in several thousand dollars in contributions that exceeded the $4,000 legal limit from several donors.

"It should be no secret that we are looking into this," said Bob Watada, the commission's executive director. "We're very concerned about the pattern of government contractors and their employees making large contributions."

Geolabs is one of several companies that fit into that pattern.

According to a listing of city contracts compiled by the Harris administration, the Kalihi-based engineering and geotechnical firm received at least $490,000 in city work during the past five years. Projects include ground work in Palolo Valley and safety improvements at Hanauma Bay.

Since 1996, Geolabs' employees and its affiliated companies have made a total of 41 campaign contributions totaling $62,400.

The complicated maze of contributions included $3,000 in donations from company president Clayton Mimura's son Travis, who was then a student at the University of Hawaii, and a $2,000 contribution by Maryknoll School student Doris Wong, who is the daughter of Geolabs accountant Yiu Wing Wong.

Around the same time as Doris Wong's contribution, parents Yiu Wing and Winnie Wong donated $2,000 each to the Harris campaign. Overall, the Wong family donated about $10,000 to Harris' re-election efforts.

Yiu Wing Wong said that his daughter made her contribution on her own. He said his daughter, now a college student, was employed at the time and did not receive money from family members to make the donation.

Wong said his family's contributions were personal and unrelated to Geolabs' business.

The Wong family is just one of a number of clusters of campaign donations by Geolabs' staffers.

For instance, on Dec. 16, 1999, Harris' campaign officials deposited a total of $8,000 in checks from company president Clayton Mimura, Travis Mimura, engineer Robin Meng Tiam Li and vice president Shui T. Kwock.

A separate bundle of contributions linked to Geolabs was deposited by the Harris campaign on June 30, 1999, including $1,000 donations by Yui Wing Wong and C.W. Associates Inc. and a $4,000 contribution from Geo Services Inc.

C.W. Associates and Geo Services -- whose board includes Geolab's top executives -- both contributed $6,000 to the Harris campaign. Harris campaign officials recently refunded $2,000 in excess contributions from C.W. Associates and $1,000 from Geo Services after they were flagged by the Campaign Spending Commission.

Clayton Mimura told the Star-Bulletin that the employees' contributions were personal and had nothing to do with company business. He said that employees were not reimbursed for the contributions. But he did say that company officials discussed with staffers who they felt should get their support.

Employees support Harris because his policies benefit the construction and engineering industry and not because he awarded the company city contracts, Mimura added.

"If we have a choice between a candidate who doesn't want more (growth) versus someone who is inclined to do more ... it's clear we would want to support a candidate who is for more growth," Mimura said.

Few consultants have benefited from the Harris administration's pro-growth policies like R.M. Towill Corp.

The engineering and construction management firm, one of Hawaii's largest and oldest, has received about $16.7 million in city work since 1996, including a $2.9 million contract to manage the city's planned $300 million expansion of the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant and another $6 million for various sewer and wastewater projects.

A review of Harris' campaign filings showed that Towill employees and their family members made a total of 53 contributions totaling $42,450. Seven key staffers -- including the company's former head Richard M. Towill, retired chairman Donald Kim, chairman William Spencer, president Russell Figueiroa, vice president Kenneth Sakai and engineers James Yamamoto, Roy Tsutsui and Leighton Lum -- contributed a total of $19,000 during the past five-year period.

The spouses of Lum, Sakai, Yamamoto, Spencer and Tsutsui also contributed 19 separate checks totaling $13,700 to the Harris campaign.

Spencer, Towill's chairman, could not be reached for comment.

Kim, who served as chairman until last year, acknowledged that company employees made a number of contributions during the year, but he said he could not recall details regarding them. He declined further comment on the workers' donations.

According to state business registration records, the Towill firm and Kim have been affiliated with another major Harris donor, Maple Garden Inc.

The Moiliili Chinese restaurant caused a stir when television station KITV-4 reported last year that waitresses and other restaurant employees donated $3,000 each to the Harris campaign.

During a five-year period, three of the employees -- waitresses Shirley Chew and Siew Kin Chook and restaurant worker Thomas Tung Ta Lee -- made 16 political donations totaling $10,500, while owner Robert Hsu gave the $4,000 limit.

State business registration records show that Towill or his firm once held a management role in the Maple Garden restaurant. Between 1977 and 1987, former Towill chairman Kim was listed as the restaurant's vice president and director. State records also show that Robert Ko, R.M. Towill's former treasurer and corporate secretary, served as Maple Garden's secretary, treasurer and director in 1987.


A number of Hawaii companies' political contributions to Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris exceeded the legal limit of $4,000. Some of the money was returned at the request of the state Campaign Spending Commission and some of it was refunded voluntarily by Harris campaign officials.

Here are companies and the amounts donated to the Harris campaign in their corporate names:

>> AES Design Group Ltd., $6,000

>> Austin Tsutsumi & Associates Inc., $4,250

>> Belt Collins Hawaii Ltd., $4,500

>> Brownlie & Lee, $4,450

>> Community Planning Inc., $6,000

>> C.W. Associates Inc., $5,000

>> Delta Construction Corp., $5,850

>> Geo Services Inc., $5,000

>> Hida Okamoto & Associates Inc., $6,150

>> Mechanical Engineers of Hawaii Corp., $4,250

>> Toft Wolff Farrow Inc., $6,250

Source: state Campaign Spending Commission


Here's a snapshot of some of the major state laws governing campaign finance:

>> Individuals and companies are limited to giving $4,000 to candidate for a countywide office during a four-year election period.

>> Candidates must report all donations of $100 or more to the state Campaign Spending Commission. The reports must include the names, addresses and amounts given by the donors.

>> An individual or business cannot falsely give money in the name of another individual or company.

>> All individuals and business that receive more than $50,000 in work from state or county governments must register their political contributions with the commission. The registration must be filed within 30 days of the contract or within 30 days of the contribution.

Source: State Campaign Spending Commission.

Kim said he could not recall whether he was ever an officer of the Maple Garden restaurant. But restaurant owner and founder Robert Hsu confirmed that Richard M. Towill once held an ownership stake in the company, referring to the engineer as his "life saver."

Hsu said that Towill helped bail him out more than 20 years ago when he was faced with the prospect of filing for bankruptcy. He said Towill has not held an ownership interest in his restaurant for many years.

Waitress Chew said her contribution did not come from her employer but was made at her own choice.

However, one person familiar with the contributions told the Star-Bulletin that notations on several of the Maple Garden checks used for political donations appear to link the donations to the Towill firm.

Hsu defended his employees' contributions, saying they were personal and were not made by his company.

When asked why waitresses and restaurant workers were willing to donate so much, he said his employees are hardworking people who are well off financially. Restaurant waiters and waitresses work seven days a week and own two or three homes, Hsu said.

Hsu said city administrators frequently visit his restaurants and noted that Harris campaign officials once held a party at his restaurant.

"Everybody involved is my regular customer," Hsu said.

Park Engineering is one company that can count City Hall as a regular customer.

Records provided by the city show that the company collected $5.5 million in engineering contracts during the past five years, including a $1.5 million contract to reconstruct the city's sewer system in Kalihi Valley.

Harris campaign filings, meanwhile, list more than 30 individual contributions totaling $46,250 from Park employees and their family members.

For instance, Park vice president George Sumida and his wife Ann T. Sumida each gave the legal limit of $4,000 to the Harris campaign, while Debra Lynn Hayashi, a Banana Republic manager who listed the same mailing address as the Sumidas, gave $2,500 to the Harris campaign in 1999.

Russell Hayashi, a baker at Costco Wholesale Co. who listed the same address as the Sumidas and Debra Hayashi, also gave $2,500 to the Harris campaign in 1999. Russell Hayashi declined comment.

Larry Matsuo, Park's chief executive officer, said political donations by employees and their family members were made individually. Matsuo said he did not influence how his workers' contributed to political campaigns.

Matsuo said his employees typically support political candidates who would do a better job of improving Hawaii's economy. He said the quality of his company's work -- not its campaign contributions -- are the reason the city has awarded it various contracts. But he conceded that political contributions probably make a difference.

"It's not a must but maybe it helps," Matsuo said. "I would think so. I hope so."

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