Reflection this year’s Legislative session comes to a close, Capitol insiders and outsiders alike will reflect on the past four months and draw their own conclusions.  Amidst all of the self-congratulatory posts, newsletters and back-patting for a job well-done, elected officials will attempt to drown out the less-flattering assessments.  There is one clear, unambiguous message from our elected officials:

“The law does not apply to us.”

The very same laws and rules that are in place to maintain public trust were consistently and repeatedly violated while powerful legislators like Joe Souki, Sylvia Luke and Donna Kim would call it “a necessary evil”.  For these same individuals, rules are mere recommendations – like the “suggested serving size” that is listed on the side of a box of cereal.  This comes on the heels of House Majority Leader Scott Saiki’s January promise of improved government transparency.  Interestingly, none of the nine bills proposed by the State Ethics Commission were passed by this Legislature.

First and foremost, blame belongs with the media – the “fourth pillar” of our democracy.  News outlets like the Honolulu Star-Advertiser rarely offer critical commentary and rarely speak out or question the behavior of our elected officials.  They pick the low hanging fruit (Kenoi’s P-card abuse) and look past the more difficult questions (pay-to-play contributions by Navatek to key legislators to advance sweetheart tax credits).

Further fault can be found within government itself.  Agencies like the Ethics Commission, the Campaign Spending Commission and even the Auditor rarely call attention to this bad behavior.  As guardians of public trust, it behooves these agencies not just to prosecute the low-hanging fruit (like Cachola’s use of campaign funds to purchase an SUV for personal use), but to speak out on behavior that erodes the public trust.  Whether the action is an actual violation or a perceived violation of ethics, the erosion of public trust is the same.

The governor will be complicit to this bad behavior when he signs bills like medical marijuana dispensaries into law.  Legislators broke the very rules they wrote to govern themselves to advance a dispensary bill by eliminating public hearings, bypassing key committees on public safety, removing the only medical expert (Josh Green) from decision-making and even reviving the bill after it died.  Even the self-appointed vanguard of good government, Les Ihara, is expected to vote in favor of this tainted bill.

The most obvious blame, however, lies with elected officials themselves who hide behind legislative immunity and bend the State Constitution to defend their abuse of the public trust.  The State Constitution is clear that only the Legislature can investigate misconduct of its own members.  Tom Brower was never investigated for “Hammergate” two years ago because the Legislature chose to look the other way.  Asking legislators to supervise themselves is like asking a work furlough inmate to come back at the end of the day.

The cycle of unethical behavior continues even in the wake of empty promises by Scott Saiki and Joe Souki.  So long as elected officials hold the key to their own accountability, they will continue to erode the public trust until there is nothing left.  Until then, the message is clear:

“We don’t follow laws, we make them.”

While this pattern of behavior has occurred for years, below is a listing of some of the corruption that the HoJ Blog has discussed over the last four months:



Blog Notes: A spreadsheet detailing campaign contributions that Navatek has made can be accessed here.  The HSA editorial board (party of one) expanded on their poor coverage of the Legislature by speaking against the sweetheart deal that they are being served by “bought and paid for” legislators.

From fbi.govOnce again, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HSA) managed to look past the real issues when they reported on multi-million dollar tax credits being considered in the waning hours of the 2015 Legislative session.  While investigating the five w’s of journalism (Who?, What?, When?, etc.), they failed to capture the “so what?” and once again leave the public blind to pay-to-play politics that take place on a daily basis. In comments to HSA about the state budget, Sylvia Luke was quoted:

“We just wanted to make sure that what we passed was balanced and responsible,” said House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke (D, Punchbowl-Pauoa-Nuu­anu). “We are concerned about the spending in the out years, and because of that we are controlling government growth and spending at the same time.”

In the same article, Jill Tokuda added:

“We are very aware of the mounting obligations that we have as a state, so we’re making sure that we balance all of the increasing costs that we have against wanting to make sure that the budget that we passed reflects the priorities that we have as a Legislature — to funding various needs of education, to natural resources, to public safety, all of these different things — and also making sure that we can sustain these costs over time,” said Tokuda (D, Kai­lua-Kane­ohe).

Yet, on what seemed like the very next page, HSA wrote:

With state lawmakers heading into the final days of the legislative session for this year, it remains uncertain how they might amend the tax credit law, but proposals have been floated to double the size of the credit that could be claimed by investors.

If state coffers were truly as tight as Luke and Tokuda claim, then the doubling of a tax credit for companies being displaced by a project being undertaken by the state would be completely out of the question.  While simultaneously advocating for a “skinny” state budget and doubling of tax credits, Luke and Tokuda manage to speak out of both sides of their mouth.  The Navatek representative (Ann Chung) quoted in the very same article notes that they are not seeking a doubling of the tax credit that would leave taxpayers on the hook for $20-million in lost revenue. With nothing obvious indicating the strange actions being taken by Luke and Tokuda, taxpayers are left to suspect much more sinister intentions are behind this tax credit.  An evaluation of campaign contributions prior to last November’s election reveals 77 separate contributions by Navatek or by employees linked to Navatek made to elected officials totaling $81,000.  Below is a summary of the contributions to different elected officials:

Governor Abercrombie $39,700
House Luke $5,500
Governor Hanneman $4,900
Senate Dela Cruz $4,600
House Saiki $4,300
Governor Ige $3,500
Senate Inouye, L. $3,071
House Nishimoto $3,050
Senate English $2,350
Senate Kidani $2,200
Senate Hee $2,000
House Cullen $1,300
House Tsuji $1,300
Senate Kim $1,250
Council Martin $1,000
House Yamane $900
Senate Baker $200
House Souki $200
Senate Wakai $100

The list itself reads as a who’s-who of Hawaii politics in a clear attempt to ensure that this tax credit is pushed through.  Former governor Abercrombie was a strong supporter of this tax credit and benefitted greatly from employees of Navatek.  Navatek went so far as to use multiple employees to funnel contributions to the Abercrombie campaign to skirt the $6000 cap in contributions. Peculiarly, House members rank higher than senators on the same list.  Those that follow politics at the Legislature note that contributions made to senators are generally double those made to representatives based on campaign spending limits and also the influence that each elected official holds.  [1]  If the House were truly a power center, then one would expect the Speaker of the House (Joe Souki) to also rank high on top of the list.  This is clearly not the case.  In fact, both the Speaker of the House and the Senate President (Donna Kim) rank low on the above list. An alternative explanation of committee chairmanships also fails to pass muster.  While Sylvia Luke and Scott Nishimoto hold positions of power as the chair/vice-chair of the House Finance Committee, similar contributions were never made in the period to Jill Tokuda or Ron Kouchi. [2]  The same comparison fails when Navatek contributions to majority leaders in the House (Scott Saiki) and Senate (formerly Brickwood Galuteria) are examined.  Clearly, Navatek was not looking to “grease the wheels of democracy”, otherwise these telltale patterns would have unfolded. The last possible explanation is to view key individuals in the House of Representatives as obstructionists looking to exploit a company that has been made vulnerable by previous legislative decisions.  It is as if the legislature administered the poison and is selling the antidote.  If the budget were clearly as tight as Luke claims in her quote, she would be holding tightly on to all revenue streams possible to ensure that state coffers remained solvent.  By Luke’s own words and a simple extension of her logic, the doubling of a tax credit does not make fiscal sense.  It is a tax credit that was never sought for by Navatek to begin with.  So just who exactly is Sylvia Luke looking out for?  It is clearly not the taxpayers. Sylvia Luke only looks out for Sylvia Luke.  Clearly, $5500 in contributions to her campaign is ample for her to sign away $20-million in state revenue.  In the absence of any other explanations, Luke saw deep pockets when the issue was taken up and was certain to leverage her power to get what she needed. Quid pro quo. While HSA’s coverage was clearly near-sighted, they at least managed to appropriately describe the situation when they quoted Marcus Oshiro:

“I’ll give them an ‘A’ for audacity”.

[1] – A senator is one of twenty-five members, while a representative is one of fifty-one members.  By this logic, a senator’s vote is twice as powerful as a representative’s vote. [2] – While Tokuda was not Ways and Means chair during the reporting periods examined, contributions to former Ways and Means chair, gubernatorial candidate and current governor David Ige are dwarfed by Luke, Nishimoto and Saiki. * – Due to technical limitations, a full spreadsheet detailing all 77 contributions made by Navatek and its representatives will be made available after the initial post.  Please check back later.

Twisted Logic

Courtesy the Hawaii House BlogLiberal House Democrats continue to fall flat on their promise to deliver accessibility and accountability to state government with HB1476, now slated for hearing on Thursday, February 10th. Via their own twisted logic, they would like the public to believe that they can offer more transparency to government by decreasing transparency.

Yes, that is as ridiculous as it sounds. I can’t make this stuff up. Here is the bill’s description per (emphasis added):

Requires the Campaign Spending Commission to process all campaign donations so as to shield the identity of donors from candidates. Creates a publicly funded voter voucher pilot program in the Office of Elections.

Upon reading the bill, it is based on the flawed premise that a candidate will not be beholden to donors if they do not know who contributed to them. If the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission were to somehow “anonymize” the donor, it does not stop a candidate from learning or even hearing about the identity of a donor or the magnitude of their donation.

In the realm of the State Capitol, many donations come with a wink and a nod. Lobbyists rely on candidates knowing how strongly they support them and can easily find back channels to convey their benevolent gift. For example, Bob Toyofuku (lobbyist for the Hawaii Association for Justice and ambulance-chasing lawyers) simply needs to shake hands with Sylvia Luke after a House Finance hearing and say “enjoy the $2000”. No amount of anonymizing by the Campaign Spending Commission, no amount of lawmaking by the Legislature can change this.

To be fair, many political contributions are made out of gratitude. This is the sort of thing that must be judged in context, and on a case-by-case basis.

With such a highly flawed piece of legislation, it begs wonder whether the actual intent is not the increased government transparency promised by Scott Saiki (co-sponsor of HB1476).

Perhaps the actual intent is to shroud the entire process of political contributions in secrecy.  Perhaps there is something to hide.  Upon closer examination, the very individuals who would benefit from this poor legislation are the bill’s introducers.

Five of the bill’s introducers (Richard Creagan, Kaniela Ing, Bert Kobayashi, Nicole Lowen and Takashi Ohno) yields some interesting conclusions. [1] Below are the total contributions they accepted for campaigns in the previous two-year election cycle:

Creagan Ing Kobayashi Lowen Ohno
Contributions Received $34,750 $12,201 $17,500 $49,627 $56,696

What are the odds that ambulance-chasing lawyers [2] would find interest in a representatives from Nu’uanu (Ohno) and from Kailua-Kona (Creagan and Ohno)?

Creagan Ing Kobayashi Lowen Ohno
Plaintiff’s Attorney Gifts $3,510 $750 $4,650 $6,375 $3,900
Contributions Received $34,750 $12,201 $17,500 $49,627 $56,696

While a simple $50 or $100 donation might be a nice gesture, these representatives have accepted many large donations from ambulance-chasing attorneys. [3] $4000 or $5000 is a lot of money to say that you are not beholden to a particular group, but this is just a small fraction of their total contributions. Let us delve further:

Creagan Ing Kobayashi Lowen Ohno
Plaintiff’s Attorney Gifts $3,510 $750 $4,650 $6,375 $3,900
Candidate Gifts $9,500 $4,000 $5,000 $8,600 $4,726
Contributions Received $34,750 $12,201 $17,500 $49,627 $56,696

These same representatives accepted substantial sums from other representatives. [4] This includes Sylvia Luke, Scott Saiki, Scott Nishimoto and former state representative K. Mark Takai.

In fairness, there are a couple of ways that this can be interpreted. First, these representatives are such poor fundraisers that they need to be buoyed up by much more powerful representatives who are also much more prolific representatives. Alternatively, these representatives are paid for their support and obedience (fealty) in campaign contributions. The latter would suggest that if any one of these representatives were to step out of line and vote against their benefactors, they would receive less money toward their reelection.

Based purely on these numbers, it is quite clear that these representatives appear beholden to (a) liberal Democrats and (b) to ambulance-chasing attorneys. While I am open to alternative interpretations, the voting records of all five representatives are clear that they march lock-step to these supporting causes. There are no exceptions in their voting records to show that these representatives are an independent voice for their constituents and community. They do not vote for their communities, they vote for special interests.

Their districts do not have a voice in state government because it has been bought.

However, the numbers so far do not quite tell the story for Takashi Ohno. [5] For Ohno specifically, one other trend was quite clear:

Creagan Ing Kobayashi Lowen Ohno
Plaintiff’s Attorney Gifts $3,510 $750 $4,650 $6,375 $3,900
Candidate Gifts $9,500 $4,000 $5,000 $8,600 $4,726
Out-of-state Gifts $19,609
Contributions Received $34,750 $12,201 $17,500 $49,627 $56,696

In addition to plaintiff’s attorneys and liberal Democrats, Ohno owes much of his success in the last election to the support of out-of-state interests. Unless he plans on claiming former mayor Michael Bloomberg and his wife (both of whom maximized their contributions to Ohno at $2000 apiece) as family, he has a hard case to make as an independent voice for his community.

The take home message is quite clear: these representatives, based on their publicly available campaigns spending reports, are clearly in the pockets of special interests. When you owe your job to wealthy special interests like liberal Democrats and ambulance-chasing attorneys who can write $500 checks on a whim, it is hard to go against the grain.

More importantly, this analysis would not be possible if HB1476 were to pass. If the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission were forced to “anonymize” contributions, it would be possible for this blog, and for other concerned citizens to follow the money trail.

[1] As introducers of this bill, these sophomore (second-term) representatives stand out against other individuals because they are also part of the caucus of liberal Democrats. This distinction excludes Beth Fukumoto-Chang from this analysis.

[2] Contributions listed may differ slightly from other calculations as the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission only reports donations in excess of $100. It is likely that these numbers are higher than this blog is reporting.

[3] For purposes of this post, any gift that could be directly or indirectly attributed to plaintiff’s attorneys, lobbyists for plaintiff’s attorneys, or other organizations that support them (Hawaii Association for Justice) were included in the totals.  Contributors to campaigns will frequently use the names of surrogates (like spouses) to avoid the image of publicly supporting a candidate.

[4] For purposes of this post, gifts that could be attributed to any organization or individual associated with a sitting representative were included. This includes the Hawaii House Democratic PAC which is a slush fund for liberal Democrats to transfer funds to candidates while covering any traces of the originator of the money. Contributions from obvious family members were excluded.

[5] Tallies for other representatives were not made. Gifts to Ohno included to contrast against other contributors noted in this analysis.