BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Political candidates all across the country are targets of negative advertising from third parties that want to influence the November general election.
But in Hawaii, in one of the most important elections in the state in recent history, most of the negative advertising has been focused on one man – Hawaii’s former Governor, Ben Cayetano, who is running for mayor of Oahu.
As mayor, he will have nearly as much power and responsibility as he did when he was governor from 1994 to 2002, because he will oversee a multibillion budget and most of the state’s population. He’ll also have to manage some $15 billion in infrastructure repairs and maintenance.
Unions – particularly the Hawaii Carpenters Union – have turned on Cayetano, a Democrat that normally enjoys union support, because he opposes the construction of the city’s planned $5.3 billion elevated steel on steel rail system. He said the 20-mile rail system will bankrupt the city and destroy its beauty and cultural sites.
This Hawaii Carpenters Union and its affiliate, Pacific Resource Partnership or PRP Hawaii, have spent nearly $2 million on negative advertising attacking Cayetano so their pro-rail candidate, Kirk Caldwell, will be elected, and now, Cayetano is taking legal action to stop it.
Yesterday, during a press conference with his two attorneys, Jim Bickerton and Michael Green, Cayetano announced he filed a lawsuit in state court against Pacific Resource Partnership, its Executive Director John White, its Board members, the Carpenters’ Union, which directs Pacific Resource Partnership’s actions, and Pacific Resource Partners’ advertising agency Ho’akea Communications, as well as defendants who have so far kept their identities secret. (see the 30-page Complaint against PRP here)
“Everyone who looks at these ads and hears them understands that they’re intended to say that Ben Cayetano is corrupt, that he’s a crook, that he broke the law. That was what they intended, and that they know is not true,” Bickerton said. (See a video of the press conference here) He emphasized the campaign against Cayetano has been waged with “big money for big lies.”
Michael Green, a well-known defense attorney who also represents Cayetano, said: “He’s been called a crook, a thief, for six months he hasn’t done anything but try to take the high road.”
Every one of these statements is a falsehood and the Defendants are aware they are false, Bickerton said.
Pacific Resource Partnership has accused Cayetano of profiting from illegal campaign contributions when he was governor.
The true facts, Bickerton said, are Cayetano “never knowingly accepted any illegal donations.” When Cayetano was told in 2005 some donors had contributed to his gubernatorial campaign using false names or went above the legal limit for contributions, he returned all the money that remained in his account. Cayetano did not keep any of his campaign funds and “never gave government contracts in exchange for campaign cash and in fact signed laws to bring those practices to an end,” Bickerton said.
Green stressed the importance of the lawsuit: “When you don’t answer stuff like this, people start to think maybe it’s true.”
Bickerton said the source of the money spent on the all out campaign against Cayetano is “mysterious”, but they have traced the money to a group of wealthy general contractors “who expect a big piece of the billions of dollars that will be spent by taxpayers if rail is built.” Bickerton said the lawsuit will help uncover which contractors give funds to PRP Hawaii.
Before filing the lawsuit, Cayetano fought PRP Hawaii’s negative campaign with facts and testimonials.
When Pacific Resource Partnership accused Cayetano of taking illegal campaign contributions, former state Campaign Spending Director, Bob Watada, flew to Hawaii and held a joint press conference with Cayetano saying he did nothing illegal.
Watada, who was Campaign Spending Director from 1994 to 2004, and was known for aggressively pursuing cases against politicians who broke the campaign spending law, said Cayetano is one of the most honest politicians he knows.
Pacific Resource Partnership made other accusations against Cayetano, including that he was soft on crime, and that he laid off state employees while cutting government services.
PRP Hawaii is distributing fliers attacking him and pollsters are calling Oahu residents to push negative information about him, Cayetano said.
He suggests PRP Hawaii is wasting its members’ money on attack ads when it should go to the members’ benefits.
The PRP media blitz is also having an impact on Cayetano’s campaign for mayor.
Early polls showed Cayetano with 53 percent of the voters supporting him. While he won the three-way mayor’s primary race in August with 41 percent of the vote, he did not win the election outright.
While it is relatively rare to file a libel suit in Hawaii, especially in recent years, and virtually unheard of to include the public relations company in the complaint, Bickerton said the lawsuit is warranted.
“Until defendants started this campaign of falsehoods, Gov. Cayetano enjoyed an excellent reputation. As a two-term governor who ended his term with a surplus and a wide range of achievements, he is respected as an administrator. More importantly, because he has always tried to do what he believes to be in the public interest and say ‘no’ to powerful special interests who seek more than their fair share of the pie, even those who disagree with him have always recognized that he is a person of independence and integrity.”
Ho’akea Communications, which handles many political campaigns in Hawaii, is headed by former KHON TV 2 television news anchor Barbara Tanabe and former KHON TV 2 news director Jim McCoy. Hawaii Reporter sought comment on the lawsuit from McCoy, but he did not issue a statement on Monday.
Bickerton, a partner with Bickerton Lee Dang & Sullivan, said the case will likely go to trial in a year or more. He is seeking a jury trial and is leaving the amount of damages up to a jury.
He said Cayetano is not just filing this lawsuit for himself – it is for others who might want to run for office but don’t want to tolerate this kind of advertising war being waged against them.
“It is bigger than Ben verses Kirk and it is bigger than rail verses bus. It is about whether we’re going to let secret, shadowy groups with unlimited funds pump lies into the public discourse,” Bickerton said.
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