Senator diverts
election funds

Kawamoto's coffers paid for
traffic tickets and other car costs

State Sen. Cal Kawamoto spent thousands of dollars in campaign money on car repairs, auto insurance premiums, traffic tickets and gasoline, according to a Star-Bulletin analysis.

Between 1996 and 2003, Kawamoto (D, Waipahu) spent more than $21,000 in campaign funds to fix, insure and gas up a Dodge 1992 van he personally owned. The Kawamoto campaign also spent $22,500 in January 2003 to buy a Subaru truck to replace his van.

The questionable expenditures represent about 14 percent of Kawamoto's $312,000 campaign war chest. They are also a focus of a state Campaign Spending Commission investigation into Kawamoto's possible personal uses of campaign funds.

"This reeks of the appearance of corruption, if not actual corruption," said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group. "This officeholder is using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses."

In an interview in his office on Friday, Kawamoto said 90 percent of the expenses associated with his vehicles are campaign-related. He said he considers his work on the boards of several nonprofits and community groups as campaign work. Any travel expense related to those boards are legitimate campaign expenses, he said.

Kawamoto said he racks up between 16,000 and 17,000 miles a year of travel on behalf of those nonprofit agencies and community groups. If his campaign were to reimburse him for all of the mileage expenses he accrued since 1994, it would owe him more than $40,000, Kawamoto said.

"I'm not trying to cheat the government or cheat anybody," Kawamoto said. "You guys make it sound like I'm cheating the government. Why me? Why always me? There's a lot of guys out there buying cars and whatever."

Kawamoto, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Military Affairs and Government operations, is a longtime opponent of efforts to reform Hawaii's campaign-spending laws.

Earlier this year, he introduced legislation that would give the Senate the power to hire and fire the Campaign Spending Commission's executive director and audit its finances. The Senate shelved both proposals.

Bob Watada, the commission's executive director, declined comment, citing his agency's pending investigation.

People familiar with the commission's probe said its investigator is examining dozens of expenditures related to Kawamoto's vehicles.

The commission is also looking at Kawamoto's alleged failure to report dozens of contributions after the Star-Bulletin reported last June that his campaign's financial records omitted more than $20,000 in contributions from local businesses and unions.

A recent Star-Bulletin computer-assisted study found dozens of car-related payments, as well as several improper expenses such as payments for parking and speeding tickets. The expenditures include:

>> More than $13,000 to six service garages for repairs ranging from major engine work to windshield-wiper replacements and oil changes;
>> $3,500 in MasterCard and Visa payments for gasoline;
>> $2,331 for auto insurance premiums to Progressive Insurance and United States Auto Insurance;
>> $325 to register Kawamoto's 1992 Dodge van with the City and County of Honolulu;
>> $184 for two traffic tickets that Kawamoto received in March 2001, $45 for a parking citation he received in December 2003 and $511 to settle a 2000 traffic claim by Waianae resident Rogelio Idica.

State campaign finance rules forbid candidates from using campaign funds to pay for traffic tickets, parking citations and legal settlements arising from traffic accidents.

In the past several years, the Campaign Spending Commission has fined former City Councilmen Jon Yoshimura and John DeSoto for using campaign funds to pay traffic violations.

In his most recent campaign disclosure, Kawamoto said he used campaign funds to pay for a $45 parking ticket he received Dec. 29, because he was seeking a contribution for a fund-raiser at the time.

A copy of the citation obtained by the Star-Bulletin shows Kawamoto was ticketed for parking in a tow zone in front of the First Interstate Building on South King Street.

Kawamoto, who spearheaded the controversial photo traffic enforcement program several years ago, also recalled that he received a speeding ticket several years ago while he was driving to Waipahu High School to attend a community meeting.

He initially told the Star-Bulletin that he was driving 35 mph in a zone where the speed limit drops to 25 mph during school hours. But Kawamoto's filings with the Campaign Spending Commission said he was ticketed "on his way to a Waipahu Neighborhood Board meeting."

Copies of the tickets obtained by the Star-Bulletin show he was cited for driving 53 mph in a 35 mph zone near Farrington and Kamehameha highways and for not wearing a seat belt.

The citations were issued at 12:38 p.m., March 10, 2001, a Saturday. The Waipahu Neighborhood Board did not meet until March 15, 2001, at 7 p.m., according to board meeting minutes.

When asked about the discrepancy between his account and the date and time listed on the speeding ticket, Kawamoto told the Star-Bulletin that he could not recall the details of the episode. But he said he often met with community groups on weekends.

Annette Yamaguchi, who served as chairwoman of the Waipahu Neighborhood Board from 1986 to 2002, said the Waipahu board never met on Saturday because it would have been inconvenient for a volunteer board.

"Why would we have a neighborhood board in the middle of the day on a Saturday?" said Yamaguchi, who said she unseated Kawamoto for the chairmanship of the Waipahu Neighborhood Board in the mid-1980s.

State rules do not forbid political candidates from using campaign money to purchase a car so long as it is used while campaigning and the campaign committee is the registered owner.

Personal use of the car must be reimbursed to the campaign, and candidates are also required to keep a detailed log of mileage for campaign-related travel and personal travel. The reimbursement rate, which is set by the Department of Accounting and General Services, is 32 cents a mile.

Kawamoto's campaign van was registered to the senator personally, not the campaign.

He replaced the van with the Subaru Baja truck, which his campaign acquired from Schuman Carriage in January 2003 for $25,000. According to his campaign disclosures, $22,500 of the purchase price came from Kawamoto's campaign while the remaining $2,500 came from personal funds.

While the Committee to Re-elect Cal Kawamoto is the registered owner of the Subaru, Kawamoto often uses the car to commute to his job in the state Legislature.

"All of that is part of my campaign," Kawamoto said. "I don't have a personal life anymore."

He showed the Star-Bulletin several logs that documented his travels. However, the logs largely listed meetings with community organizations such as the Waipahu Neighborhood Board and Wahiawa Hospital, on whose board he serves.

Under state law, such public meetings aren't considered campaign-related unless the candidate urges people to vote for him or attempts to influence his election.

Public Citizen's Holman said he is skeptical about Kawamoto's explanations.

"When you buy a car with campaign funds, you're not going to use it just for your campaign," Holman said. "These sorts of activities cannot be excused, even for an imaginative person."


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