‘People should be enraged’: Two ex-lawmakers plead guilty in corruption case, admit to taking bribes

Two former lawmakers agreed to plead guilty, which could result in a reduced sentence.
Published: Feb. 15, 2022 at 8:35 AM HST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2022 at 6:51 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty Cullen pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal charge in connection with a bribery scandal.

In their first court appearances, English and Cullen pleaded guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud, a felony publishable by up to 20 years behind bars and a maximum fine of $250,000.

As part of a plea deal, English agreed to forfeit $15,305 and Cullen will forfeit $23,000.

Both were released on $50,000 bond on several conditions, including surrendering their passports and other travel documents. Their sentencing date is set for July 5.

English retired last year, citing symptoms of “long COVID.” But court records showed he was already under investigation by that point. Cullen resigned last week after the charges against him were made public.

English and Cullen have admitted that they received bribes from local businessman Milton Choy to introduce -- then kill -- bills establishing government-funded cesspool replacement programs. Those programs would have benefited Choy’s industrial cleaning company.

During today’s hearing, English initially attempted to justify his actions, saying the cesspool bill was “beneficial to the people of Hawaii.”

“I think people should be enraged,” said University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore. “I think if you’re going to enter a guilty plea, then you will have to fall on the public’s mercy and you have to admit you’ve done wrong.”

Senior U.S. District Judge Susan Mollway also questioned English why he didn’t report the bribes from Choy in his annual gift disclosure forms -- even though he reported dozens of other gifts over the years, including $7 food items and snacks.

“I didn’t think about it your honor,” said English.

Political watchdogs said English’s response was unacceptable.

“That was a pretty lame excuse. His rationale there was ... the bribes didn’t come through his office -- if they had come through his office, everything is logged and everything is reported,” said longtime investigative reporter and Common Cause of Hawaii board member Ian Lind.

“But because it went into his pocket it didn’t go through his office so he told the judge ‘I never thought about it.’”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson later pointed out that in his plea deal English admitted that he “knowingly and purposely” failed to to declare the payments “because he didn’t want the public to know he was taking bribes.” English was later forced to concede that point.

Moore said the casual way in which the two former lawmakers accepted the bribes suggests that political corruption in Hawaii is much more common than people think.

“I think it is more widespread across county agencies, state agencies and the Legislature itself just because we’ve seen so many examples of this,” said Moore.

Back in 2019, local engineer Jim Lyon was convicted of paying $240,000 in bribes to an unnamed, former Department of Hawaiian Homelands official in exchange for $2.5 million in contracts.

Then last year, a federal grand jury charged five former building inspectors with the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting of taking bribes from a local architect. Several have already pleaded guilty.

“There is a serious cultural problem with the corruption we have in our government institutions,” said Moore.

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