State filings: Mysterious PAC spent more than $176K on Hanabusa

Updated: Aug. 9, 2018 at 6:03 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A political action committee facing fines for failing to disclose its organizers and activities filed a report Wednesday with the state Campaign Spending Commission that indicates it's spent $176,212.61 to support U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa's campaign for governor.

"Defend Hawaii Now" has been running a television ad since Aug. 2 that included the voice of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard endorsing Hanabusa and criticizing Gov. David Ige's leadership. It also reminds voters of the false missile alert and the escape of killer Randall Saito from Hawaii State Hospital.

The report filed Wednesday says the PAC has spent about $113,000 for television advertising and the rest on polling, printing and mailing — all in support of Hanabusa.

Also filed Wednesday, which was a deadline for filing reports on late campaign spending by PACs, was an organizational report for "Defend Hawaii Now" that identifies former Honolulu Police Officer Ernie Moritomo as the only official of the PAC.

Calls to the phone number offered on the report were not answered; there was no opportunity to leave a message.

When campaign spending officials realized last week that the ads were running without any disclosure, they sent two letters to a P.O. box listed on the ads ordering the organization file its disclosure documents and pay a $500 fine for failing to disclose advertising spending up to that date.

The organization still has not filed that report.

Unregistered PACs are often called "ghost PACs" because the spending is often timed to avoid disclosure of organizers and donors, sometimes until very late in an election cycle.

The report filed Wednesday shows that all of the money spent by Defend Hawaii Now was from contributions from a limited liability company called Waimea Associates, LLC. State business registration records show Waimea Associates is managed by Dennis Mitsunaga.

Mitsunaga owns an engineering firm that has had many non-bid government contracts.

The amount Defend Hawaii Now has spent immediately put it in the top 10 PACs in spending on this election.

The largest by far is "Be the Change," funded by the Hawaii Carpenters union, which has spent nearly $3 million primarily to help Hanabusa and state Sen. Josh Green, who's running for lieutenant governor.

Other top-spending PACs are also tied to unions. AiKea UNITE HERE, funded by the Ironworkers and unions, has spent about $280,000 supporting Ige. The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly has spent about $322,000 supporting Hanabusa and state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who's running for lieutenant governor.

When Hawaii News Now broke the story about Defend Hawaii last week, messages left for Mitsunaga were not returned.

On Thursday morning, Sheri Tanaka — an attorney listed on state records as an agent for Waimea Associates — sent Hawaii News Now an email with the subject line "Yellow Journalism." A brief letter from Tanaka was attached, saying, ""You are on notice that your August 3, 2018 news story titled 'Campaign Spending Campaign Fines 'Ghost PAC' Running Ads Against Ige' contains a number of false statements regarding Dennis Mitsunaga. On a going forward basis, please get your facts straight so that you do not make any additional false reports."

The letter did not specify any of the allegedly false statements.

When reached by phone, Tanaka promised to call back after a meeting, but so far has not done so.

Mitsunaga was a longtime supporter and fundraiser for former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who is supporting Hanabusa in the governor's race. If Mitsunaga is behind this PAC, it wouldn't be the first time he used his wealth to try and influence an election.

In 2016, a PAC called "Save our City" spent more than $330,000 in a campaign to oppose Mayor Kirk Caldwell's run for re-election. The donors and spending were not revealed until about a week before the 2016 general election.

At the time, Mitsunaga issued a statement saying he wanted to match heavy spending by rail supporters on Caldwell's campaign.

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