EXCLUSIVE: Unions spend nearly $600K for Caldwell

Published: Oct. 11, 2012 at 10:24 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 12, 2012 at 6:25 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A union-backed group is exploiting a loophole to spend nearly $600,000 on behalf of mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell.
"Workers for a Better Hawaii" is a little-known organization that has emerged as the second biggest spender in the high-stakes race.

Hawaii News Now has learned that most of these ads are being paid by the pro-rail Hawaii Carpenter's Union, which has bankrolled over $1 million in negative ads attacking Caldwell's opponent Ben Cayetano, who opposes rail.

Political analysts say the amounts spent on the ads make a mockery of state campaign spending limits.

"There are no limits. It's Las Vegas. It's the kind of politics we should be ashamed of but we are not," said Dan Boylan, a retired professor at the University of Hawaii West Oahu.

Filings with the state Campaign Spending Commission show the Carpenter's Union has spent nearly $400,000 on these ads.

The local painter's union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the AFL-CIO joined the carpenter's union in paying for another $183,000 in ads.

The unions declined comment and Caldwell's campaign says it has no connection to the ads.

"We do not associate with them, and we did not authorize these advertisements. To do so, would be illegal."

Hawaii News Now has learned that the state Campaign Spending Commission wants to meet with the organization's members.

The commission is not conducting a formal investigation at this point but wants to know whether the group qualifies as an independent expenditure committee, or Super PAC. That would allow it to spend unlimited amounts of money on political races.

Workers for a Better Hawaii is not listed as corporation or a nonprofit organization, a check of state business registration records shows. It's also not registered with the commission as an independent expenditure committee.

The high court said unions and corporations can do this so long as they don't coordinate their ads with candidates.

A 2010 filing by the group states that HGEA as its controlling entity and other commission filings lists an HGEA staffer as custodian of the groups books and accounts. But an HGEA spokeswoman said that's for bookkeeping purposes and that the HGEA does not operate the group.

State law limits contributions to $4,000 for a single race but Workers for a Better Hawaii is able to exceed that amount because of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on political spending by unions and corporations.

Cayetano says the ruling puts him at a disadvantage.

"It indicates the new politics, the new reality in politics today ... because of the Supreme Court decision, these groups can spend anything they want," he said.

Cayetano supporters have set up their own political action committee to counter the union ads. With less than a month before the general election, most political experts say they expect a deluge of political ads from both sides in the coming days.