By Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Rick Daysog
Hawaii Superferry officials spent more than $175,000 over three years on lobbying and campaign contributions, including dozens of donations to Gov. Linda Lingle, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and other key state legislators.
An Advertiser computer-assisted study of state and federal campaign records shows that the Superferry, its executives and several of its board members contributed more than $39,000 since 2004 to local lawmakers and members of Hawai'i's Congressional delegation.
A review of state and federal ethics filings also found that the Superferry spent more than $136,000 since 2004 to lobby state officials and the federal government.
"You're talking about an extremely large sum of money even by national standards," said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert with Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group. "At the very least, they are trying to buy access, and at the worst they are trying to buy influence."
Superferry officials said there's no connection between the political donations and any legislative efforts pursued by the company.
The Lingle administration decided in February 2005 to exempt the Superferry project from an environmental assessment, which would take months to complete. That decision was reversed by the Hawai'i Supreme Court in August and now the ferry has been banned from operating until the assessment is finished.
Lingle and state legislators may convene a special session to rewrite the law and allow the ferry to operate while the assessment is conducted.
The 350-foot ferry was to carry passengers and vehicles between O'ahu, Maui and Kaua'i and began service in August before being shut down.
The Advertiser's computer-assisted study examined contributions made to Lingle, Hawai'i's Congressional delegation and all 76 state legislators from 2004. The study found that Superferry executives and its board members made more than 30 political contributions between 2004 and 2007.
Here are the highlights:
State campaign spending records show that Lingle's campaign received six donations totaling $12,000, including $6,000 in donations in October 2006 from Superferry Chairman and former Secretary of the U.S. Navy John Lehman and company Director Tig Krekel.
Hellreich said the Lingle campaign's policy was to refuse contributions from companies that were negotiating with the state for contracts. Lingle also told campaign staffers not to accept contributions from Superferry executives, Hellreich said.
Hellreich said staffers made "an error" by accepting the $6,000 in 2006 because negotiations between the state and Superferry were ongoing. Some campaign staffers were not aware of the internal policy against accepting money from Superferry officials, she said.
Hellreich also noted that the Lingle campaign returned about $10,000 in donations to Superferry officials in 2005 because the state and the company were still in negotiations. Hellreich said the campaign has no plans to return the 2006 donations.
"All the donations associated with people with the (Superferry) were within the law," Hellreich said.
Abercrombie said he receives support from a broad group of interests including environmental groups.
Federal Election Commission records show that the Sierra Club's political committee contributed more than $6,000 to Abercrombie's campaigns since 1998 and that the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund has donated nearly $1,000 to his campaigns since 1998.
Abercrombie said he supports the Superferry partly because it provides residents on the Neighbor Islands and on O'ahu with a transportation alternative.
"I receive support from a broad spectrum of individuals and groups who represent all sides, including environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters," he said. "I've had wide-ranging support for years for one simple reason: People know they'll get a fair hearing and my best judgment."
Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Sierra Club's Hawai'i chapter, said it's unfortunate that the Superferry is using its vast resources to try to change Hawai'i's environmental laws.
The Sierra Club was one of three groups whose lawsuit against the ferry service led to the suspension of the company's operations in August.
Had Superferry officials conducted an environmental assessment in 2004, the company would be operating right now, Mikulina said. Mikulina added that environmental groups like the Hawaii Sierra Club, whose annual budget is about $150,000, aren't on the same playing field as the Superferry when it comes to political clout in the Legislature.
"It's unfortunate that they can use their muscle ... to harness public sentiment and to steer the debate in their direction," Mikulina said.
Superferry spokesman David Wilson said the company is fighting to stay alive.
Wilson said the company earlier hired a "dream team" of lobbyists — including longtime political strategist George "Red" Morris, former University of Hawaii Professional Assembly executive John Radcliffe and prominent local attorneys Robert Toyofuku and Gary Slovin — when it looked like the state Legislature was going to pass a bill during the last session to require the state to conduct a full environmental impact statement on the Superferry.
The bill — which wasn't passed — would have delayed the Superferry's launch by a year if not more.
"There was a need to turn up the volume with the lawmakers with our side of the discussion," Wilson said. "It is an absolute fight for survival."
Superferry officials are now hoping state legislators convene a special session to consider a bill that would allow the company to operate while the state is conducting an environmental assessment on the impacts of the ferry service.
The request came after Maui Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza issued an injunction on Tuesday that barred the Superferry from operating until the state completes an environmental assessment.
The Superferry says the suspension of service has cost it about $650,000 a week and forced the company on Thursday to place 249 of its workers, or about 80 percent of its workforce, on furlough.
Reach Rick Daysog at email@example.com.