Denby Fawcett: Buying A Corrupt Legislator In Hawaii Is A Surprising Bargain - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Opinion article badgeWhat is astonishing about the federal charges against former state Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty Cullen is the crude, old-fashioned way the two of them were allegedly bribed.

English and Cullen are expected to plead guilty in U.S. District Court Tuesday to felony charges of accepting bribes.

According to court documents, English and Cullen pocketed thousands of dollars stuffed in white envelopes slipped to them in broad daylight — as well as gambling chips, hotel rooms and restaurant meals — in return for turning legislation to favor the businesses of wastewater treatment company executive Milton Choy, named in court documents only as “Person A.”

Choy has not been charged with a crime but his attorney expects he will be soon.

That kind of bribery, offering cash in envelopes, is so retro, so yesterday, or as my friend the author Kathleen Norris puts it sarcastically, “so Hawaii charming.”

I thought cash in envelopes handed to politicians sitting in their cars in broad daylight went out with Gov. Huey Long in Louisiana in the 1930s.

What makes this cash-passing, quid pro quo method of bribery additionally astonishing is almost every special interest group today knows the way to buy influence is to make hefty legal campaign donations to politicians with the unspoken expectation of getting something back in return. Not hard cash payola.

The FBI probably engineered the overt way the two former lawmakers were allegedly bribed in hopes of building a bulletproof case against them. But court documents say even though the money was offered flagrantly, English and Cullen readily accepted the cash.

They were fearless.

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm says, “It was unsophisticated, very blatant. It reflects the fact that English and Cullen were comfortable. They did not think they would get caught.”

Alm was Hawaii’s U.S. attorney from 1994 to 2001 when some of Hawaii’s most notorious political corruption cases were prosecuted.

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol Rep Ty Cullen questions DLNR. 31 jan 2017
State Rep. Ty Cullen accepted gifts and cash for a total of close to $23,000, according to federal charges. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

He thinks English and Cullen might have thought the coast was clear because until recently there have not been many political corruption cases. But from the late 1990s until the mid-2000s, a parade of corrupt Hawaii government officials were sent to languish behind bars.

Also surprising is the relatively small amount of money court documents allege English and Cullen took as payment for turning legislation.

From 2014 to 2021, Cullen accepted gifts and different cash payments sometimes as small as $2,000 for a total of close to $23,000. On one occasion, he allegedly negotiated with his briber to give him $5,000 rather than $3,000 because he was “paying plenty debt.”

The indictment says English also took different smallish payments — one as manini as $500 —  to make up a total of $18,000, including accepting hotel rooms and dinners for himself and a Chinese dinner for a family group from Tahiti he was entertaining. Why? In a January 2021 exchange described in the court documents, English stuffed a $5,000 bribe in his back pocket and said, “I can definitely use that now. All the mortgages have come due.”

Senator J. Kalani English sits near the Senate President on the last day of the 2021 legislative session. April 29. 2021
Former Sen. J. Kalani English allegedly took bribes as small as $500. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Colin Moore, political analyst and director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said, “To throw away whole careers, to have to resign in disgrace and go to prison for amounts that are relatively small, is shocking.”

Moore said, “How casual they were in taking repeated small amounts of cash shows a certain arrogance, how they had no fear of getting caught. It was brazen stupidity.”

Choy is at the center of the case.

Choy’s H2O Process Systems got a subcontract to do work at a wastewater treatment plant on Maui that resulted from a law Cullen advocated for in 2015. Prosecutors allege Cullen pushed colleagues to approve the legislation as a favor to Choy.

Since 2014, Choy has donated more than $160,000 to 50 local politicians and received $6 million in government contracts.

Choy’s attorney Michael Green said in a phone conversation Friday he expects his client will be charged in the next 90 days with felony charges akin to what English and Cullen face: honest services wire fraud, a felony for depriving the public of “honest, faithful, disinterested service from a public official.”

Green says Choy has not been offered anything by federal authorities for his cooperation but when he is charged Green says he will review the evidence to determine whether to go to trial or to work out a plea deal “to benefit Choy and his family. He has young children.”

English and Cullen’s case will always stand out in the history of political corruption in Hawaii because of the directness. Using the word crook for a person who accepts a bribe is too general. It describes a person involved in many different kinds of crime.

What English and Cullen allegedly did is more precisely described by the adjective “venal” from the Latin venalis, meaning “for sale.”

English and Cullen were venal politicians. They sold themselves to benefit others in violation of the public trust.

In the promenade of Hawaii politicians imprisoned in the late 1990s up until about 2006, only former state Sen. Marshall Ige could be called a venal politician.

Ige was sentenced to six months in prison in 2002 for telling a Beverly Hills couple he could clear their daughter’s record of two drug convictions if they paid him $30,000. When Ige failed to keep his promise, the couple reported him to the Attorney General’s Office.

Most of the government felons prosecuted when Alm was Hawaii’s U.S. attorney were convicted for pilfering money from their campaign funds or abusing the power of their offices, not for openly soliciting cash to illegally do favors.

Former speaker of the House Daniel Kihano was sent to prison in 1997 for diverting $27,000 from his campaign funds for his personal needs.

Honolulu City Councilman Andy Mirikitani in 2001 was sentenced to 51 months in prison for bribery, extortion and wire fraud. Mirikitani offered bonuses to two staff members and then asked the staffers to return part of their bonus money to him in cash.

Gary Rodrigues, the former state director of the United Public Workers, and his daughter Robin Haunani Rodrigues Sabatini, were convicted in 2002 for embezzling union funds and money laundering and defrauding a health care benefit program. Rodrigues was sentenced to five years in federal prison. His daughter was sentenced to 46 months.

In 2000, former state Sen. Milton Holt served six months in an Oregon prison for mail fraud and personal use of campaign funds.

Alm says when government officials know they might end up behind bars, it helps deter political corruption.

He says when he was a Circuit Court judge, he made it a point to sentence even misdemeanor campaign spending violators to 10 days in jail.

Alm says his office is eager to root out dirty government officials.

“We are open for business,” he said. “It is our responsibility to pursue such cases.

“It is important for the public to call our office when they see something suspicious going on so we can start investigating. They can call anonymously if they want. People trust the FBI to keep tips confidential. We offer the same protection.”

Read this next:

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Excellent insight Denby. Running around trying to stomp out these fires after they occur with two year long investigations almost encourages more of the same. You correctly point out that officials feel safe in their actions.

Arewethereyet · 1 year ago

So appropriate that you should mention Huey Long. Hawaii is exactly like Huey Long's Louisiana, and we, the citizens, are to blame. We accept everything from the petty incompetence at the lower levels of our bureaucracy, to the hight level criminality at the top. Just your average day in Hawaii government.

mtf1953 · 1 year ago

I agree with Denby that we in Hawaii are terribly "retro" about illegal cash. Our politicians ought to take a page from a prominent Florida woman. It's easy to create NFTs that can then be offered privately to interested parties and purchased with cryptocurrencies. It's also a remarkably simple way to launder ill-gotten funds. You create a shell corporation, offer an NFT for auction, and then your shell corporation buys it with crypto purchased with currency. The money trail is surprisingly difficult to follow.

JimP · 1 year ago

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