On the morning of Monday, Oct. 22, Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a candidate for mayor, threw down the gauntlet in defense, not only of his personal integrity, but of the future of Hawaii politics. In response to negative campaign ads, the Gov. brought a libel lawsuit in state circuit court against Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP), its Executive Director John White, its Board of Trustees, advertising agency and the Carpenters’ Union. In a press conference, Cayetano and his lawyers, Jim Bickerton and Mark Green, said that the lawsuit will reveal the identity of PRP’s shadowy, undisclosed corporate funders.
The suit alleges that PRP’s anti-Cayetano ads are unprotected speech because they knowingly publish damaging lies. The ads state that the Gov. knowingly accepted illegal campaign contributions, gave out government contracts in exchange for contributions–and even kept half a million dollars for himself. These statements have been exposed as untrue by former Campaign Spending Commission executive director Bob Watada and commissioner Della Au Belatti, among others. The Gov. has also publicly refuted the lies, but “despite all those people saying it was false, these guys continue to do this. They don’t care,” Cayetano said.
It’s a case of lies being repeated over and over, with impunity, until people come to believe them. “They have no shame. If they can do it to Ben, they can do it to anyone,” Green said. For a time following the primary, Bickerton noted, the ads had stopped, but they came back with a vengeance in late September. “And they’ve morphed,” he added. The complaint cites one recent ad with voiceover saying, “We don’t need Pay-to-Play in Honolu Hale,” juxtaposed with a text graphic stating: “Cayetano Pay to Play.”
With regard to damages, the complaint documents Cayetano’s slippage in the polls after the ads were broadcast. “We took a post-primary poll asking, ‘Have you seen the PRP ads? Did they influence you?’ Five percent replied, ‘Yes,’” Cayetano said.
“With all parties running polls day and night, we can see the day-to-day impact these ads have,” Bickerton said, adding, “the law says that damages for injury to reputation will be substantial.”
Although in libel cases involving public figures, like Cayetano, the burden of proof is higher, requiring that malice be established through knowing and intentional publication of falsehoods, Bickerton said he is confident that this can be proven.
As one of the few libel suits filed in Hawaii in recent years, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizen’s United (2010) case, which held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting campaign expenditures by corporations and unions, Cayetano v. Hawaii CarpentersUnion holds particular public significance, Bickerton said. “Big money paying for big lies: Is that the future of Hawaii politics?” he asked. Not if Cayetano prevails.