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This Hawaii Super PAC Says It’s Raising Money For Wildfire Victims — And Political Candidates Too

A progressive political organization is taking advantage of the Maui wildfires to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars that may go to support political candidates instead of direct help for victims of the Aug. 8 fires.

Our Hawaii Action, which is led by former Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing and community organizer Evan Weber, has raised at least $684,000 through the newly created Maui Community Power Recovery Fund.

The group’s fundraising website starts with a familiar pitch, asking donors to “Support Maui Fires: Relief, Recovery and Rebuilding.” Later on, the page notes that money will go to political organizing and campaign operations.

A note above the donation section says the contribution will benefit Our Hawaii Action that manages contributions through the Democratic-fundraising website ActBlue.

“We’ve been really clear about what this is from the beginning,” said Weber.

The URL mauirecovery.org takes users to a page with an aerial image of Lahaina in the background. The page says that contributions will benefit Our Hawaii Action. (Screenshot)

But others say that, at a time when there are numerous groups raising money that would go directly to victims, the political aspects of Our Hawaii Action may not be apparent.

Hugh Jones, a longtime political money watchdog and former head of the Hawaii attorney general’s tax and charities division, said multiple statements from the page’s description might lead someone to “reasonably believe that Our Hawaii Action is a charitable organization” and confuse a nonprofit charity with a politically active group.

“Most donors would probably not realize that money donated through the donate button on the website could be used for these purposes rather than direct disaster relief in Lahaina,” Jones said in an email.

Our Hawaii Action is a Super PAC that last year raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to defeat U.S. Rep. Ed Case because progressives didn’t like his initial lack of support for President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” climate legislation.

At the time, Weber noted the PAC would also be creating “dark money” 501(c)4 groups that aren’t required to disclose donors. The dark money groups would help progressives gain footing in Hawaii, he said at the time.

The Maui Community Power Recovery Fund and the domain names mauirecovery.org and mauijustrecovery.org were all set up after the August wildfires by Our Hawaii Action.

Weber said via email that $158,000 of the $648,000 raised by the recovery fund has been spent or committed so far: “over 75% on direct aid to impacted survivors including immigrant populations unable to receive federal funds. The rest has been spent on informational and organizing materials, or direct relief infrastructure needs.”

Weber did not provide a breakdown of how the funds were distributed.

Kirstin Izumi-Nitao, executive director for the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission, said she was aware of two Our Hawaii groups but that it was too soon to make any determinations about whether the activities were questionable.

“We would have a concern if any of this rose to the level of political fundraising,” she said.

Nate Chee, supervisor for the attorney general’s tax and charities division, said the department is examining the situation.

Evan Weber stands outside his Kailua residence.
Evan Weber said the fund would provide immediate relief that’s oriented towards long-term action, and which includes government accountability. (Corey Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

On Aug. 28, Ing pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge for missing a deadline for a campaign funding report. He was previously fined $15,000 in 2018 for using campaign funds for personal expenses.

A few days before his plea before the Campaign Spending Commission, Ing appeared on PBS NewsHour and made a national pitch for donors for the Maui fund. In the segment, Ing advocated “returning the control of public trust resources like land and water back to the people of Lahaina to decide their own fate.”

Later on in a discussion about impacts to residents and ongoing relief efforts, Ing encouraged viewers to donate to the site mauirecoveryfund.org to support “not just for the short term, but in the long term, knowing it’s going to take $6 billion minimally to rebuild.”

But mauirecovery.org actually links to the Maui Community Power Recovery Fund’s donation page benefiting Our Hawaii Action.

The website uses an aerial view of a scorched Lahaina as a backdrop, and the top line mentions immediate efforts, and prioritizes supporting “immediate relief, a just recovery, and long-term rebuilding efforts.”

Further down, the page explain funds will go toward organizing survivors and leaders in Maui. “The Maui Community Power Recovery Fund exists to support leaders and organizations who have been leading to address the root causes of the Maui Fires devastation for years, and will continue to be there when the cameras fade away.”

In an interview, Weber said “The fund is to do immediate relief that’s oriented towards long-term action, which includes government accountability, includes engaging with the government to have the best possible response for the community in Lahaina. And also may include engaging in elections, to ensure that there is representation that will act on behalf of the community and not corporate and out of state interests.”

Congressional Candidate Kaniela Ing speaks at the 2018 Democratic Party convention held at the Hilton Waikaloa Resort in Kona, Hawaii.
During an appearance by Kaniela Ing on PBS Newshour Aug. 25, Ing promoted the mauirecovery.org web address. That URL directs users to a site that raises money for Our Hawaii Action (Cory Lum/Civil Beat)

Ing defended their approach as being focused on boots-on-the-ground activities and said they have been more direct compared to other fundraising efforts. By comparison, they’re actively assessing need gaps in marginalized groups, particularly with the Filipino and Latino communities.

“Our efforts have been all over online. Like the Lahaina Strong T-shirts, the banners, the signs, the people we hired. They’re going viral,” said Ing. “And we were really clear about we’re raising money for the long run. And for advocacy from the start.”

When asked how they had publicized the total money raised, where money would go and what their activities have been, Ing said the community they’re serving knows about their efforts.

He declined to answer specific questions or provide documentation about where the money was being spent and instead referred a reporter to various social media accounts that he said documents the efforts.

But except for posts saying they had provided food coolers to World Central Kitchen and Chef Hui, the social media accounts largely involve advertisements for several outreach events, petitions and demonstrations.

According to the state Campaign Spending Committee website, the Our Hawaii PAC filed its last half-year report July 31, 2023.

The first opportunity to look at how money raised through the Maui Community Power Recovery Fund has been transferred to the Our Hawaii PAC is being spent won’t come until late January when state campaign finance reports are due. The committee’s cash on hand in July was a little over $50.

Source : CivilBeat