• Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on public corruption reforms proposed by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct.
LIHU‘E — In February of this year, two former legislators were arrested for accepting bribes from wastewater executive and prolific campaign contributor Milton Choy in exchange for taking legislative action to benefit Choy’s companies.
Choy also disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal donations throughout the state — including tens of thousands to Kaua‘i legislators and Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami — and received a number of sole-source contracts from the government.
The scandal put a spotlight on the campaign financing system as a whole and prompted the state Legislature to create a panel of experts to develop recommendations to address public corruption in the state.
The report released by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct earlier this month was scathing in its discussion of the current campaign financing system, particularly of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which determined that independent political spending cannot lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption.
“Wealthy donors, corporations and special interest groups have long had an outsized influence in the outcome of elections, but the decision in Citizens United dramatically expanded the influence of money in politics,” the report reads. “With the influence of money in politics comes greater temptation and opportunities for corruption, bribery and greed,” the commission concluded.
The report said these campaign financing problems were “complex and largely unfixable” at the state level, but submitted several proposals to improve the state system, including increasing public funding for campaigns and banning the solicitation of funds during the legislative session.
Hawai‘i was an early adopter of public financing for elections, with a public funding plan enshrined in the Hawai‘i Constitution in 1978. Use of the program peaked in 1994 when the state distributed $1,718,920 in public funding, according to data from the Hawai‘i Campaign Spending Commission.
But now it is rarely used — only $96,720 was distributed in 2020, the lowest amount since 1984.
For many candidates, the benefits of public financing don’t outweigh the cost.
State Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, who represents Lihu‘e, portions of Wailua and the South Shore, said he had previously considered using public campaign financing, but ultimately didn’t think it was worth the trouble.
“It was incredibly difficult to keep track of,” he said, adding he hadn’t given much thought to proposals to reform the system.
The commission recommendation could make the system more favorable to candidates by bumping the amount of public funding they would receive.
Political analyst Colin Moore said he didn’t think the proposal went far enough. Instead, he advocated for either fully funding elections or implementing a democracy voucher system, where registered voters are each given a certain amount of money to contribute to a candidate of their choice.
The system was recently instituted in Seattle, where it was shown to increase the number of candidates seeking office and total number of campaign donors.
“If you’re going to make some changes around the margins, those are good changes to make,” said Moore of the commission proposals. “But a full overhaul is the only thing that would really make a difference.”
State Rep. Nadine Nakamura, who represents north and east Kaua’i, praised the work that went into the report, and strongly advocated for strengthening public financing.
“That is the way to move away from large campaign contributions that are needed to run a large, modern campaign,” said Nakamura.
As to larger reforms, she said she would need to look at the costs and balance them against other needs.
‘A few bad apples’
Kaua‘i legislators characterized recent public corruption cases as isolated incidents, not indicative of a systemic problem.
“There are a few bad apples that create this black cloud over the legislative body and all public servants,” said Nakamura. “It’s unfortunate because I believe the majority of public servants are in it for the right reasons.”
Tokioka echoed that sentiment.
“For the most part, the legislators don’t partake in that kind of practice,” he said.
Both Tokioka and Nakamura supported another commission proposal to ban soliciting and accepting funds during a legislative session — a strengthening of a measure passed earlier this year that banned holding fundraisers during a legislative session.
Tokioka said, while he sometimes received checks during the session, he had never actually solicited funds without a formal fundraiser.
“When you work with industries and unions, and you’re knowledgeable and listen and you try to help wherever you can — you don’t have to do a fundraiser for them to write you a check,” Tokioka said.
Gary Hooser, a former Senate majority leader and reform advocate, viewed the measure as a positive step to avoid quid pro quo arrangements between politicians and donors.
“Say you’ve got a big vote tomorrow and you call somebody up to raise money today,” said Hooser. “Even if you don’t apply pressure, the pressure is there on the donor.”
He added, “The politicians, legislators, governors and mayors need to go the extra mile to remove the ethical clouds. Even if most of them are all totally honest, still, you gotta go the extra mile because we need to instill faith and confidence in the voting public.”
Moore also thought the measure would help optically, but reiterated the importance of a more substantial change.
“Politicians know who gives to their campaign, whether its during session or not,” said Moore. “I don’t know if a ban during session is going to make much of a difference.”
The state Legislature will convene in January 2023.
Guthrie Scrimgeour, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-0329 or email@example.com.
Source: The Garden Island