Hawaii House leader fined a record $50,000 for ethics violations


House Majority Whip Romy Cachola

By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org

HONOLULU – State House Majority Whip Romy Cachola, a Democrat from Kalihi, has been fined $50,000 by the Honolulu Ethics Commission for alleged ethics violations after settling his case with the panel.

Chuck Totto, the commission’s executive director and legal counsel, said this is the largest civil fine approved by the commission.

“Public corruption is the use of public office for private gain, and this case is a perfect storm of public corruption,” Totto said.

The Ethics Commission issued the record fine against Cachola because he had “persistent violations,” with his “misconduct” occurring “over several years and on a monthly recurring basis.”

Cachola issued a statement Saturday saying he was “wrongfully defamed” and “painted as an intentional violator of the ethics laws for which he is not.”

Cachola’s said that “it is very difficult to win and prevail when Mr. Totto and the commission are prosecutors, judges and jury.”

“As many know and in Cachola’s opinion, one has no choice but to settle,” Cachola said. “Per advice of counsel I settled for $50,000 rather than incurring more than $125,000 in legal fees and costs to try and defend myself.”

The commission investigation spun out of a 2013 report by Watchdog.org, which documented Cachola used $30,000 of his campaign funds to purchase a 2008 Nissan Pathfinder. His records showed he subsequently spent campaign funds to buy fuel as often as three times a week, and put additional campaign funds toward car insurance, maintenance and registration, totaling $21,000.

In am email to Watchdog.org at the time, Cachola claimed the Pathfinder was “purely for campaign use.”

“I felt the campaign needed a bigger car such as the Pathfinder, to accommodate signs, supplies and other campaign paraphernalia,” Cachola told Watchdog.org. “For personal use, the family uses our Lexus car, which is a pretty small car.”

Under state law, any candidate or political official who uses campaign funds for personal use must reimburse the campaign.

After Cachola made that statement to Watchdog.org, the state Campaign Spending Commission opened its own investigation and hired investigators from the state attorney general’s office to follow Cachola for a week.

During that week in January, Cachola used the Pathfinder only for personal affairs, driving to church, a golf course and to the state Capitol.

On May 7, the Campaign Spending Commission filed a complaint against Cachola’s campaign, saying he used $64,000 of his campaign fund for personal use. (See Romy Cachola complaint and Romy Cachola case exhibits.)

Besides the Nissan and related expenses, the Campaign Spending Commission noted Cachola spent another $12,000 on food, beverages and so-called “public relations expenses.”

Cachola hired a lawyer and finally agreed through a settlement agreement in July to reimburse his campaign $32,166 and pay a $2,496 fine.

In a follow up report, Watchdog.org noted a separate check of city records showed Cachola also received $250 to $300 a month for his automobile allowance when he was in the Honolulu City Council from 2008 to 2012 while also billing his campaign.

The Honolulu Ethics Commission opened an investigation, announcing last week it found Cachola “misused his Council position to collect $9,450 from taxpayers for expenses related to a 2008 Nissan Pathfinder, even though he was already being fully reimbursed for the same expenses from the Friends of Romy Cachola — his political campaign fund.”

Cachola said in Saturday’s statement that “regarding the vehicle allowance portion of the opinion, that misunderstanding relates to the campaign vehicle and unclaimed reimbursements to offset the use of the vehicle was resolved before the Campaign Spending Commission.”

Cachola said Totto was informed of the resolution that removed the “double dipping” claim.

The Ethics Commission said Cachola committed other ethics violations.

“For at least six years, (Cachola) routinely accepted dozens of unlawful gifts worth thousands from lobbyists. For the period 2008 through 2012, he accepted 44 prohibited gifts valued at $3,820 consisting of meals at high-end restaurants, wine, and golf outings from lobbyists who had matters before the Council,” the Ethics Commission said.

The Ethics Commission added that Cachola also “failed to disclose his conflicts of interests that resulted from the prohibited gifts from lobbyists before voting on about 100 bills and resolutions related to rail transit, construction projects and rezoning that came before Council in the 2008-2012 period.”

Cachola also had “prior knowledge,” as a councilmember for 12 years, “during all of which he chaired or was a member of the Council committees responsible for developing ethics laws” and “attended multiple ethics trainings.”

When his fellow City Council members Rene Mansho, Rod Tam and Nestor Garcia were cited for violating Honolulu ethics laws, the commission said Cachola “should have learned to avoid misusing City resources for political or personal benefit.”

Cachola also ignored commission directives, and “repeatedly disregarded the Commission’s 2003 directive to him not to accept gifts in excess of $200 from lobbyists.”

Cachola also failed to cooperate, ”ignoring Commission subpoenas and discovery orders, and filed several meritless motions with the Commission and in circuit court.”

Besides the civil fine, the Commission recommended the Council hold its members accountable for vehicle allowance reimbursements.

Cachola said Totto’s interpretation of the law “can result in dangerous consequences including invalidation of Council measures due to undeclared conflicts of interests.”

“Mr. Totto is well aware of this as well as the names of the other Council members (who likewise were not aware of lobbyists exceeding expense limits) but does not address any of this in his Advisory Opinion but only targets Cachola. Cachola is reviewing matters and plans to share more information on this issue in the near future,” Cachola’s statement said.

Cachola added “the advisory opinion states there was no violation and I maintain that I did not intentionally violate any ethics laws and I will support the passage of clarifying laws to further direct the Commission’s activities and prevent Mr. Totto from unfairly being selective in his interpretation and prosecution of the laws.”

Cachola has had an extensive career in politics, serving in the Hawaii state House from 1984 to 2000 and on the Honolulu City Council from 2000 until 2012. He was re-elected to the Hawaii House District 30 during the 2012 election. Cachola has served as State House Majority Whip since 2013 and is a member of five legislative committees.