Ben Cayetano, a candidates for Honolulu mayor and former two-term Democratic governor, filed a libel suit Monday against a trade group that hopes to sway next month's election where rail transit has become the central issue.
The lawsuit was filed in Honolulu Circuit Court against Pacific Resource Partnership, PRP's board of trustees, PRP executive director John White and Hookea Communications, the public relations firm helping to organize the media blitz against Cayetano.
"This lawsuit is about big money for big lies," said Jim Bickerton, one of Cayetano's attorneys. "If they can do it to him, they can do it to anybody."
The lawsuit alleges PRP knowingly spread falsehoods about Cayetano through television and radio ads, as well as flyers and push polls. Since May, PRP has spent more than $1 million in a media campaign that accuses Cayetano of accepting illegal campaign contributions, rewarding donors with non-bid government contracts and keeping donations for personal gain during his time as governor.
"He's been called a crook, a thief (and) for six months he hasn't done anything but try to take the high road," said Michael Green, another of Cayetano's attorneys. "When you don't answer stuff like this, people start to think maybe it's true."
PRP and Hookea Communications declined comment until both parties can review the complaint.
Cayetano told reporters the PRP ad blitz has taken a toll on him and his family.
"I've been frustrated (and) I feel humiliated," said Cayetano. "There are times when I feel very, very bad for my family because my wife and my kids really are hurt by these (ads)."
Although proving libel against a public figure is a tough hurdle, Cayetano's attorneys believe they have all the ammunition they need. They point to the PRP ads themsevles, as well as statements by former public officials who say Cayetano did nothing wrong.
"Everyone who looks at these ads and hears them understands that they're intended to say that Ben Cayetano is corrupt, that he's a crook (and) that he broke the law," said Bickerton. "That was what they intended, and that they know is not true."
In July, Bob Watada, the former executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission held a joint news conference with Cayetano exonerating the former governor of knowingly accepting illegal donations.
"He did nothing illegal," said Watada. "We would not have closed his account if there were any outstanding liabilities."
Cayetano believes the PRP campaign kept him from capturing the Aug. 11 primary, where he finished 6 points shy of capturing more than 50 percent of the vote.
According to a post-primary poll conducted by Cayetano's campaign, 5 percent of respondents had a more negative view of the governor because of the PRP ads.
"That 5 percent was important back then, but that was their strategy, said Cayetano, "To take me into the general election."
Cayetano's lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages. Bickerton said such complaints often take a year or more to resolve.
Cayetano faces Kirk Caldwell Nov. 6, the pro-rail former managing director who has been endorsed by PRP.