A Honolulu political action committee under investigation for questionable campaign practices has spent thousands this year training six Hawaii County Council candidates how to campaign.
The Pacific Resource Partnership, a super PAC consisting of private construction contractors and carpenter union leaders, spent $7,925 for a “campaign training workshop” and to consult with the council candidates, including three incumbents, one of whom is running unopposed.
Council candidates Ronald Gonzales, Dru Kanuha, Greggor Ilagan, Maile Medeiros David, Valerie Poindexter and Tiffany Edwards Hunt accepted training or consulting, according to campaign funding reports filed with the state Campaign Spending Commission. The reports cover the first six months of 2014.
PRP officials, including Executive Director John White, did not return repeated phone messages Friday or Monday.
But the powerful organization’s website describes the super PAC as “the voice of the construction sector, we often take a lead role on prominent issues that are decided at the federal, state and county levels, such as capital improvement program spending, land use, zoning, job training and tax incentives.”
PRP lobbied for the Ane Keohokalole Highway in Kona and statewide harbor improvement funding, among other projects, the consortium says on its website.
Some in Hawaii County worry that now that the $5 billion Honolulu rail project is moving forward, PRP is concentrating its efforts on another big project on Hawaii Island, a multimillion-dollar garbage incinerator that Mayor Billy Kenoi calls likely to be the largest public works project built on the island to date.
The makeup of the next county council is crucial to that project, as a vote on the contract is scheduled for April.
All of the candidates interviewed by West Hawaii Today said PRP did not lobby for specific Hawaii County projects during their overnight trip to Honolulu for training. Instead, they said, the super PAC offered campaign tips and pointers and provided a training manual. PRP paid for airfare, hotel and dining.
PRP came under investigation last month by the Campaign Spending Commission after settling a defamation lawsuit filed by former governor and Honolulu mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano. Cayetano’s attorney released emails to the Honolulu media after the court settlement showing PRP’s consultants plotted a deliberate strategy to portray the anti-rail Cayetano as corrupt, allowing pro-rail candidate Kirk Caldwell to come from behind and win the 2012 election in a runoff.
Gary Kam, general counsel for the Campaign Spending Commission, said Monday he became aware of unreported expenditures after the emails were published. He said he is working with PRP’s attorney, whom he said has agreed to report the missing expenditures. The commission will levy a fine against PRP for any omissions in its reports, he said.
Gonzales, running for the District 9 seat against incumbent Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, received $1,865 worth of services from PRP, according to his campaign filing. He has also received $1,800 from carpenters unions and $1,000 from the AFL-CIO of $10,568 in contributions to date.
“It was strictly training,” Gonzales said.
Wille said Gonzales is the second candidate PRP has pitched against her. She said in the 2012 election, PRP funded mailers advocating Oliver Sonny Shimaoka, a candidate who is running again after she defeated him. She wouldn’t characterize the mailers as negative, although one did incorrectly imply that the Outdoor Circle endorsed Shimaoka.
This year, Wille said there is some negative push-pulling going on in her race, although she doesn’t yet know who’s behind it.
“It’s a very powerful group,” Wille said of PRP. “Billy (Kenoi) wants a puppet in my seat. He wants that seat, to count on that vote.”
Wille so far has collected $4,180, all from individuals. Shimaoka reported no contributions so far in the campaign, although he did carry over $5,879 from 2012.
Kanuha, the Kona District 7 incumbent who is running unopposed, said he was aware of PRP’s recent controversies, but he said he won’t adopt any negative campaign strategies. Kanuha reported $1,677 in PRP contributions among his $8,147 in contributions to date. Another $2,450 came from developers and construction unions and $1,000 from public service unions.
“I manage and run my campaign with dignity and respect for everybody,” Kanuha said. “Nobody’s going to influence me on how I’m running my campaign — It’s all positive.”
Kanuha has never had to campaign, as he enters his second term with no opposition. But he said he plans to continue in a career in elected office, and he needs to know how best to reach his constituents.
Ilagan, the first-term Puna District 4 incumbent, reported $1,621 in PRP services. He’s raised $26,285, almost $20,000 more than challengers Roy Lonzano and Emily Naeole combined.
He described the training as “basic.”
“They invited me,” he said. “I had to think about it, but I went. You never know what you might learn.”
Ka‘u/South Kona District 6 candidate Medeiros David accepted $1,197 from PRP. Another $2,000 came from Hawaii Laborers’ and Employers’ Cooperation and $500 from Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters. In all, she’d collected $6,270 in contributions, compared to $1,771 by Richard Abbett and $1,325 by Jim Wilson in the campaign for the open seat.
Medeiros David said she didn’t go to Honolulu, but she accepted training on the Big Island. She said she runs her own campaign, so she found the sessions very informative. Medeiros David said she wasn’t lobbied during her sessions.
“It was very helpful,” she said.
Poindexter, the District 1 incumbent running against challenger Larry Gering, said she sent a campaign volunteer to the Honolulu event, accounting for a $1,144 PRP contribution. In all, Poindexter has raised $5,544, compared to Gering’s self-funded campaign. She didn’t hear about any lobbying, she said.
Hunt said the $422 she reported came from three visits that PRP officials, including White, made to her in Puna District 5. Hunt’s raised $11,766 in a crowded race for an open seat where Daniel K. Paleka Jr. has raised $5,203, Tim Law has raised $2,725, Roxanne RJ Hampton has raised $1,893 and three other candidates haven’t reported any contributions.
“There was no coaching me on issues,” Hunt said, “It was more like quizzing me on issues.”
Hunt said she was questioned on any issue she had a hard-line stand on, and she told them a garbage incinerator.
“I told them I’m fundamentally opposed to that,” she said.
Hunt disagreed, however, that the proposed incinerator is motivating PRP to spend money on Big Island council races.