Mauka to Makai

Mauka to Makai
By revealing campaign deception, Justin Hahn hopes citizens will be motivated to come out and vote against it.
Image: Mindy Pennybacker

A former PRP staffer speaks out

Mauka to Makai / As election day nears, a former insider at Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP), the pro-rail PAC, has come clean about the group’s venal and possibly illegal tactics. Coincidentally, as this story was going to press, Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, the target of PRP’s relentless (and discredited) campaign, announced that he was suing the PAC, its executive director, John White, and its parent organization, the carpenters’ union, for libel and slander.

PRP commercials alleging that Cayetano violated campaign contributions law when he ran for governor have been refuted by many, including Bob Watada, who was then-executive director of the State Campaign Spending Commission (CSC). But the unsavory PAC and its partner, I Mua Rail, continue to saturate the airwaves and Star-Advertiser pages with misleading ads.

To keep big (and anonymous) money from stealing Honolulu’s election, the Weekly obtained an exclusive interview with Justin Hahn, a former PRP employee anguished by what he saw and bravely willing to go on the record.

In mayoral debates, Caldwell has refused to disavow PRP’s smear tactics and has denied that videotape in PRP ads had been supplied by his campaign, even though his website displays many of the same images. While he did not condone PRP’s ads, Caldwell said, “If I told [PRP] to stop,” it would be coordination. He was referring to CSC rules that prohibit independent expenditure committees, such as PRP, from coordinating political activity with candidates.

While working as a PRP outreach coordinator, however, Hahn says he observed PRP “possibly coordinating with a political campaign.” A graduate student in psychology at UH West Oahu, Hahn says that what alarmed and motivated him to speak out was the institutional dishonesty at PRP and I Mua Rail.

“The corporate culture there is very dishonest. It seems to me that the culture of PRP will have an impact on the way Rail will be run should Caldwell win, and the public should know about the sort of organizations that will benefit from I Mua Rail succeeding, [and] how PRP–and the development corporations–will hurt Honolulu,” says Hahn, who was born here and graduated from Kaimuki High.

Each day, Hahn oversaw between 25–40 canvassers making door-to-door rounds for I Mua Rail, whose mission, stated on its website, is “to reinvigorate support” for the controversial rail project. The canvassers, Hahn says, included union members paid $20/hr., and others, like himself, who earned $12/hr.

A graduate of UH Manoa, Hahn found himself supervising a motley and, at times, intimidating crew. Canvassers included an ex-con (“a nice guy, who told us he had served his time for murder, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing anything that he wouldn’t approve of”) and another individual who, “in front of the crew, threatened to assault me.” Like many of the canvassers, Hahn recalls, this individual came to work late and hung-over or on drugs, carried drug paraphernalia, and was unreliable. For union members, “that job wasn’t about working. It seemed more like it was the dole,” Hahn says. “We’d find them sometimes hanging around under a tree. I think that’s why they have [PRP-distributed] smart phones now, to track them,” he says.

While many canvassers turned in a desultory performance, dumping I Mua literature in the trash or leaving up to 20 circulars at one address, others were overzealous. Hahn, whose company cell phone number was listed in a folder carried by all canvassers, says he received calls from police, private security/neighborhood watch staff and residents themselves, who were distressed about canvassers’ appearance and behavior.

With regard to possible coordination in violation of CSC rules, “What I found interesting was that canvassers were also paid to hold signs or plant questions at rallies for a pro-rail candidate, such as Peter Carlisle or Kymberly Pine, or in support of the Hoopili development,” Hahn recalls. “They were also paid to shout down opposing views. At these events, they would not be wearing their I Mua Rail or Hoopili shirts, or showing any other identification to connote a separation from the ‘normal’ supporters.”

If people didn’t show up, Hahn was supposed to take them off the payroll. “But first my direct supervisor would ask who was missing, and if it was a union member he would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. Then as I would be driving my rounds I would see that guy sign-waving.”

John White, PRP executive director, declined to answer the Weekly’s questions about whether PRP canvassers were paid to sign wave or attend events for candidates. Instead, he stated that I Mua Rail is a branded public education program of PRP, which, he said, is running “a multi-faceted, fact-based campaign.” White added that “All of PRP’s candidate advocacy activities and any other expenditures that are required by law to be reported will be included in the appropriate campaign spending reports.”

Ultimately, despite the apparent lack of conviction and organization of the canvassing effort he witnessed, Hahn says he fears it’s been effective thus far. “They weren’t really convincing people to support Rail; they were identifying likely rail supporters and reminding them to vote.” The proof: “I was hoping Cayetano would have won the primary outright,” says Hahn, who was removed from his PRP post the week before the Aug. 8 election, “but alas, I did too good of a job.”

Although he had originally asked for anonymity, Hahn told the Weekly to use his name, “because this is how democracy dies–if money and power can steal our elections. People should assert our rights and say no.”