LIHU‘E — When wastewater executive Milton Choy was implicated in a bribery scandal involving two now-former state legislators this February, state Senate President Ron Kouchi (D-8, Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau) returned $12,000 in tied to Choy and his company.
But Kouchi is holding onto $15,100 in legal contributions connected to Honolulu businessman Dennis Mitsunaga, who was arrested last week on federal bribery charges.
“In the Milton Choy situation, there were bribery charges that would have involved votes that I would have participated in — so most of the Senate members that received donations felt that it would be best to return the contributions,” Kouchi told The Garden Island.
“The allegations with Mr. Mitsunaga are with the prosecuting attorney in Honolulu, so I have no intention of returning contributions that have been legally received and reported by my campaign.”
Mitsunaga was arrested on charges of bribery and wire fraud, alongside former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro.
Terri Ann Otani, Aaron Shunichi Fujii and Chad Michael McDonald, employees at Mitsunaga’s architecture and engineering firm Mitsunaga & Associates, were also arrested and charged.
The federal indictment alleges Mitsunaga requested Kaneshiro prosecute a former employee of Mitsunaga’s firm in return for a total of $45,000 in campaign contributions between 2012 and 2016.
Mitsunaga has been a major player in Hawai‘i politics for many years, spreading campaign contributions throughout the state.
The businessman, along with employees and family members, made 560 campaign contributions totaling $918,388 between 2006 to 2022.
Kouchi said that, while he knows of Mitsunaga, the businessman never made any requests of him.
Kaua‘i Mayor Derek Kawakami received $20,000 in Mitsunaga-connected campaign contributions in 2017 and 2018.
Kawakami has no plans to return the funds, either. He also did not return $8,500 in contributions from Choy, earlier this year.
“I can confirm that the Kawakami campaign has not returned any of these contributions from Mitsunaga & Associates as they were not tied to any improper or unethical actions,” Kawakami’s campaign chair Dan Giovanni said.
“I can also confirm that Mitsunaga & Associates have not received any contracts from the County of Kaua’i since Mayor Kawakami took office in 2018,” Giovanni continued. “Mayor Kawakami is familiar with individuals of Mitsunaga & Associates from his time serving in the state legislature approximately 10 years ago. He has not met with individuals of Mitsunaga & Associates in recent years.”
County records show that in 2019, Mitsuyaga was up for three contracts on Kaua‘i: one for Laukona Park improvements and two for the Kaua‘i Bus Mezzanine Project.
The three projects, which totaled more than $311,000 in estimated costs, were all awarded to other bidders.
Previously, Mitsunaga & Associates has been involved in other construction projects on island. Its website lists Hanapepe Stadium, Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School and Kapa‘a High School as projects it has worked on. No other Kaua‘i legislators received funds from the business.
Campaign finance reform on the agenda
The Choy and Mitsunaga scandals have led to a statewide focus on campaign finance reform, both in the legislature and on the campaign trail.
“Whether it’s legal or illegal, it’s corrupt,” said former Kaua‘i state senator and campaign finance reform advocate Gary Hooser. “Funneling large amounts of money to influence elections is inherently corrupt.”
Hooser, who now serves as executive director of Pono Hawai‘i Initiative, supports a reduction of the maximum allowable donation, a cap on the maximum amount that a candidate can hold in their campaign account, prohibiting contributions from corporations and unions, and fully publicly-funded elections.
“We have to change the rules of the game,” said Hooser. “Money in politics is a huge factor that’s corrupting the whole thing. And it doesn’t have to be that way.”
A number of politicians running for office this year have voiced support for similar reforms, including gubernatorial candidates U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele and former first lady and businesswoman Vicky Cayetano.
Kahele has made campaign finance reform the central issue in his candidacy, pledging to accept only donations of $100 or less, to denounce corporate, special interest and PAC contributions, and to not hold campaign fundraisers.
Kahele has applied for partial public financing from the Hawai‘i State Campaign Spending Commission.
On his website, Kahele lays out a 10-point plan for a campaign finance overhaul, focused on “supercharging” funding of public elections, lowering contribution limits, capping campaign war chests, and banning all fundraisers during sessions.
One of Kahele’s 10 points is improved regulation of “bundling,” collecting contributions from friends and employees to bypass campaign finance limits. This technique was used frequently by Mitsunaga — the $20,000 in donations to Kawakami, for instance, were given by Mitsunaga and five other individuals connected to his company, allowing him to bypass the $4,000 individual contribution limit in a mayoral race.
In the past, Kahele has received contributions from donors both big and small, including two from Mitsunaga in 2016 and 2018, totaling $3,500.
Cayetano has also supported some campaign reform efforts, including a reduction in the percentage of funds permitted from out-of-state donors, and a cap on campaign war chests.
At the local level, county council candidate Fern Anuenue Holland has committed to only accepting contributions from individuals and plans to use partial public financing.
“I believe that it is critical that we get big money out of politics and be accountable to the people not businesses corporations and PACs,” said Holland.
“Ideally, I would like to see money taken out of politics entirely and focus on issues, platforms, policy and debates, not popularity and marketing campaigns.”
Following the Choy bribery scandal, the state Legislature formed the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct to draft recommendations related to ethics, campaign finance, open meetings, and fraud and criminal prosecution laws. The committee has held public discussions and is working on a final report to be submitted to the House of Representatives by December.
“We’re awaiting the report from that committee,” said Kouchi. “That will be the starting point for discussions going forward.”
Source: The Garden Island