WAILUKU - The state Campaign Spending Commission has fined Don Couch $375 for exceeding the cap on nonresident campaign contributions in his 2008 County Council campaign.
The commission imposed the fine Jan. 13 at its monthly meeting in Honolulu, eight months after it determined he exceeded the limit for one of the 2008 election's campaign spending reporting periods. Couch said two donors he had believed to be Maui residents were found by the commission to be Mainland residents.
On Wednesday, Couch said he accepted the commission's decision and would be more careful accepting donations in the future. He said his 2008 campaign had a policy to ask donors if they were Hawaii residents, but he didn't ask some donors if he knew them personally.
"We'll just be more careful," he said. "If we have the slightest question, we'll certainly ask."
Couch stressed that he had cooperated fully with the commission's investigation.
"We worked very closely with the Campaign Spending Commission," he said. "The biggest thing is we were always open and transparent. Our stuff was out there all the time, and we want to make sure it always is."
Pukalani resident Sean Lester, who filed the initial complaint against Couch, said that he was gratified by the commission's decision.
"Hopefully this will help Mr. Couch be more clear about where he's taking his money from in the future, and will help our process work a little better," he said.
Lester has previously said he filed the complaint because he was concerned about the influence of large corporations and nonresidents on Hawaii elections.
Couch lost in 2008 to Wayne Nishiki in the race for the County Council's South Maui residency seat.
Commission Executive Director Barbara Wong said Wednesday that it was "absolutely" true that Couch's campaign had been cooperative with the investigation.
"They were very cooperative," she said. "The treasurer
provided us with everything we asked for immediately, and she even provided information they didn't have to provide."
Under state law, no more than 20 percent of the political contributions a candidate receives in each reporting period may come from non-Hawaii residents.
The commission found last year that two donors Couch had reported as being Hawaii residents were actually Mainland residents. The donors were Stephen Goodfellow, who gave $1,000; and Kay Lloyd, who gave $500.
Couch said at the time he was surprised by the finding because he knew both Goodfellow and Lloyd personally, knew their community involvement and had been to their homes, and had believed they were Hawaii residents.
Regardless of the mailing address provided by a political donor, the Campaign Spending Commission uses the same criteria used to determine if a person is eligible to vote in Hawaii to determine if they are counted as a resident.
Lester said he remained concerned about the impact of a court ruling last year that overturned a separate limit on the total amount that corporations could contribute to political candidates.
In June, the Intermediate Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that individuals and corporations can contribute up to $4,000 to a candidate campaigning for a four-year county office, without having to register with the commission as a political action committee.
Mayor Charmaine Tavares filed the 2007 lawsuit that resulted in the decision.
Lester said the ruling made it more difficult for the Campaign Spending Commission to scrutinize political donations in cases like Couch's.
"We now have a breed of candidate that knows how to 'work the system' based on the Tavares ruling," he said.
Wong said the commission decided last year not to appeal the court's decision, and that the deadline to appeal has passed.
The court's decision dealt with a separate area of campaign spending law and "had no bearing at all" on Couch's case, she added.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.