Three veterans “clean elections” advocates and Progressive Hawaii Now, a political action committee they controlled, have been fined more than $3,000 for a cascading series of campaign spending law violations during and after the 2012 election campaign.
The three are John J. Higgens and Randy W. Ching, chairman and treasurer of Progressive Hawaii Now, and Kory Payne, who has been director of the Hawaii Clean Elections and the Hawaii Elections Project, which have advocated for public funding for campaigns. Higgens and Ching have been officers of the nonprofit Hawaii Clean Elections, and Ching has served as president of the Hawaii Elections Project.
Progressive Hawaii Now reported receiving $2,650 in contributions and spending just $2,187.47 in support of several progressive candidates running in last year’s election, so it was by no means a big political player.
But the PAC dug itself deeper and deeper into a hole at every turn as the Campaign Spending Commission enforcement of a minor late reporting violation led to discovery of additional related violations.
The trouble started in November 2012 when Progressive Hawaii Now was fined $70 by the Campaign Spending Commission for late filing of its final report on the 2012 Primary Election. Payne paid the fine with a check.
But the PAC was tardy in filing its next two reports as well. When Payne informed the commission that Progressive Hawaii Now didn’t have enough money to pay a $200 fine and had just $117 in the bank, the commission agreed to settle the matter by accepting the $117 if Progressive Hawaii Now were able to reconcile its account, close its bank account, and request that its registration be terminated. The commission noted a discrepancy between the $117 bank balance claimed and a balance of $869 reported in the PAC’s most recent official filing with the commission.
The commission then received a check for $117 signed by Higgins and drawn on the Progressive Hawaii Now account.
The check bounced. It was replaced a month later with a second check for $117, this time signed by Payne.
At this point the wheels were coming off the buggy, and the commission was looking closer at PHN.
The state’s campaign spending law provides:
nly the treasurer and deputy treasurers shall be authorized to receive contributions or to make or incur expenditures on behalf of the candidate committee or noncandidate committee.
This meant that only Randy Ching was legally permitted to accept money or make expenditures on behalf of Progressive Hawaii Now. Checks written by Higgins and Payne were themselves violations of the law.
Then commission mail sent to Higgins at the address provided in the official organizational report filed by Progressive Hawaii Now was returned with the notation, “unable to forward.” And phone messages left at the numbers in the group’s registration went unanswered.
At this point the commission subpoenaed the PAC’s bank records, and found additional, similar violations, including mishandling of a contribution from Ching that exceeded the maximum allowed by $1,000. Although the excess was returned, it was not returned within the seven-day grace period which would have avoided any additional reporting. Instead, the excess contribution and its tardy return should both have appeared in the PAC’s next report, but they weren’t reported.
By now the Campaign Spending Commission’s attorney was examining the PAC’s records with a fine tooth comb, and asked for a copy of Progressive Hawaii Now’s cell telephone bills.
Payne responded for PHN, saying he had been unable to locate the bills and requesting additional time to gather them. The commission deferred action regarding the phone records to its next meeting.
However, the commission during its September 2013 meeting did impose a series of fines for filing late reports, making an excess contribution (Ching), failing to report the excess contribution and refund, unauthorized expenditures (for allowing checks to be signed by officers other than the treasurer or deputy treasurer, and failure to file an amended organizational report with the current mailing addresses and phone numbers of Progressive Hawaii Now and its officers.
If the telephone records are not produced, the commission is likely to impose an additional $1,000 fine for “failure to keep records.” The law requires “detailed accounts, bills, receipts, and other records” to be kept and subject to commission inspection and audit for a period of five years.
It’s been a pretty tough lesson in the specifics of campaign accounting for these clean election advocates.