- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

HONOLULU (AP) — Behind his state-issued desk in a small fourth-floor office sits a slightly built, soft-spoken man who has shaken Hawaii’s power structure to its core.

In the past two years, Robert Watada and his staff at the state Campaign Spending Commission have exposed, bit by bit, a scandal in which respected architects and engineers illegally made political donations in the names of their employees, wives and children — reportedly to win government contracts.

The results of the investigation so far: nearly $1 million in fines, jail time for a prominent lawyer, community service for business leaders, and the resignation of a Honolulu police commissioner.

“It’s what I get paid for,” said Mr. Watada, the commission’s executive director. “I believe our system requires all of us in the democracy in which we live to follow the laws.”

The civil and criminal reckoning also has been an embarrassment for some of the state’s most influential Democrats and played a role in giving Hawaii its first elected Republican governor in 40 years.

Under state law, individuals can donate no more than $6,000 to gubernatorial candidates and $4,000 to mayoral candidates. Mr. Watada found that some businessmen were subverting the law by making donations in other people’s names.

Mr. Watada’s persistence has led to a slew of investigations by Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle, who says he hopes to end a “pay-to-play culture” that has plagued Hawaii’s Democrat-dominated government for years.

The cases involve such crimes as $10,500 in donations in a five-year period in the names of three modestly paid Chinese-restaurant workers and a $2,000 donation that supposedly came from a high school student.

Still, there has been no direct evidence that the illegal contributions influenced the awarding of state and local government contracts.

And so far, the scam’s chief beneficiary, Honolulu’s mayor, has not been implicated publicly. His attorney has said the mayor never solicited or knowingly accepted illegal contributions.

After a rapid rise in politics, Mr. Harris abruptly dropped out of the 2002 governor’s race in the midst of the investigation. Republican Linda Lingle went on to win the election. The mayor’s term ends in a year.

Mrs. Lingle made political corruption a top campaign issue and won passage of a government-procurement reform law in her first year in office.

Since the probe began, the commission has levied fines against 75 companies for making illegal contributions to Democrats such as Mr. Harris, former Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano, former Maui County Mayor James Apana and former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono. Up to 40 more companies still are being investigated.

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