When Walter Ritte ran for the at-large seat for the Board of Trustees at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, his campaign was based on a single platform principal: “Aloha ‘aina is a matter of our survival.”
But can the long-time environmental activist survive in the political world? Questions have recently been raised concerning how Ritte conducted his campaign and whether or not he violated Hawaii campaign spending laws.
Ritte, who lives in Ho’olehua, has long been known for his loud calls to action and sign-waving protests against those he feels are damaging Hawaii’s fragile ecosystems. As a self-proclaimed “aloha ‘aina warrior” he has fought battles to protect Kaho’olawe from military bombing as one of the original “Kaho’olawe Nine” and helped stop the development of La’au Point. He also helped author an article of the Hawaii State Constitution, which codifies Native Hawaiian cultural and gathering rights.
Ritte was the only at-large OHA candidate coming from a neighbor island but still campaigned vigorously. Not surprisingly, Ritte finished fourth in November of 2012 with 34,879 votes, or 8 percent of the tally, losing to Haunani Apoliona of Oahu who received 103,735 or 23.8 percent of the vote.
But was Ritte’s funding part of a well-organized anti-GMO coalition from the mainland that is now funding legislative efforts to ban GMO activity on Kauai and the Big Island? A report published Sept. 4 on Forbes.com accuses Ritte of receiving campaign funds that have been funneled through a private foundation in Minnesota known as Ceres Trust to help sustain his anti-GMO activities.
What makes these donations illegal and a source of controversy is that they appear to have violated Chapter 11, Part XIII of the Hawaii campaign spending laws. Section 11-362 of the law states: “Contributions from all persons who are not residents of the state at the time the contributions are made shall not exceed 30 percent of the total contributions received by a candidate or candidate committee for each election period.”
The story on Forbes.com written by Jon Entine, director of the Genetic Literacy Project, claims that Ritte received more than 80 percent of his total contributions from out-of-state sources. The GLP claims that its mission is to explore “… the intersection of DNA research, media and policy to disentangle science from ideology.”
One theme of the story is that anti-GMO activists “have attempted to frame this battle as David vs. Goliath — threadbare grassroots campaigners fighting Big Ag. Although they claim their opposition to the innovative technology is home grown, a Genetic Literacy Project investigation, still in its infancy, suggests that the opposition is flush with cash.” The investigation found that Ceres Trust has “pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into two major allied groups: Hawaii Seed and Washington-based Center for Food Safety (CFS), which has played a key legal and logistical mainland-based support role for activists in Hawaii.”
An independent investigation conducted by The Molokai News dug a little deeper into the specific allegations made against Ritte. After reviewing the report filed with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission by the Friends of Walter Ritte Committee, it appears that $17,745.45 of the $21,918.43 received — or 81 percent — did come from non-Hawaii residents.
Two large contributions that have come into questions account for $17,000 of the total non-resident contributions. John and Susan Scarlett contributed $5,000 while Kent Whealy and Judith Kern gave $6,000 apiece. The report filed with the HCSC shows Hawaii addresses for these large contributors but Entine’s investigation claims these were fabricated.
Ritte’s report shows an address of 115 Lua St., Kaunakakai for John and Susan Scarlett. No such address exists on Molokai. When asked about this discrepancy, Ritte said John Scarlett, a doctor and CEO of the biotechnology firm Geron Corporation in Menlo Park, Calif., is his first cousin on his father’s side. “It’s normal in Hawaii for ‘ohana to kokua ‘ohana,” said Ritte.
A tax record search shows that the Scarletts do in fact own property on Molokai, at 115 and 122 Ulua Road in the Kawela Plantation subdivision. They also own two other vacant lots in Kawela. But no homeowner’s exemption is claimed, indicating that neither property is a primary residence. An Austin, Texas address is given for them.
For Kent Whealy and Judith Kern, Ritte’s report offers an address of 12-112 Alaiki St, Pahoa, HI on the Big Island. Whealy is listed in Wikipedia as … “an American activist, journalist and philanthropist who co-founded Seed Savers Exchange and has promoted organic agriculture and the saving of heirloom seeds.” These two have made previous large contributions to the California anti-GMO labeling campaign and a Decorah, Iowa address was given for both of them.
The tax records show the Pahoa address belongs to a Harold D. Stevens and the property is listed as a gay Hawaii bed and breakfast. When confronted with this information, Ritte offered no comment.
Although not stated in his story, Entine claims that Ritte is now under investigation. “I can tell you for a fact that he’s under investigation,” wrote Entine, but would provide no other details or explanation as to who exactly is doing the investigation.
Gary Kam, legal counsel for HCSC, would not comment on whether there is an active investigation being conducted on Ritte. This will not be public information, he said, unless it is referred to the Commission for action. He did say that there has been no past enforcement action taken against Ritte.
Kam also mentioned that the violation may be moot and unenforceable anyway. Apparently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided, prior to 2012, that it was unconstitutional to limit contributions from out of state sources, said Kam. This was based on a case in which a University of Hawaii student contribution was considered valid even though the student had a permanent address on the mainland.
The facts show that Ritte may have falsified his campaign contribution report. Without Ritte’s response, it is unknown if this was intentional deception on his part, a paperwork error or simply ignorance of the law.