Milton Choy, the well-heeled and politically connected owner of a wastewater business, has been working with federal investigators on a bribery case involving Hawaii lawmakers for years, his attorney says.

Choy, who was identified only as Person A in federal charging documents released Tuesday, is at the center of the bribery scandal involving two former lawmakers who have been charged with felony wire fraud.

Former state Rep. Ty Cullen and former state Sen. J. Kalani English were charged Tuesday in a bribery scheme that took place over the last several years to influence policymaking over wastewater treatment and cesspools in Hawaii. Cullen and English are expected to appear in court Tuesday.

Choy’s company, H2O Process Systems, worked on a wastewater treatment plant on Maui that was approved as a result of a law Cullen helped to push for in 2015. Prosecutors allege Cullen forwarded that measure as a favor to Choy.

Choy’s attorney, Michael Green, said he and Choy have been involved with the federal investigation for years, but would not say when exactly Choy began cooperating with the FBI or if other legislators or public officials may be caught in this bribery probe. Green noted that his client has not been charged with a crime yet, but said that the investigation is still ongoing.

Green commended the federal agents who conducted the investigation.

“This is something that has been done very very carefully, almost surgically, over the last couple years,” Green said.

Milton Choy, center, is the business owner at the center of a bribery investigation involving J. Kalani English, left, and Ty Cullen. In the above photo, English and Choy pose for a picture with U.S. Rep. Gregorio Sablan in 2015. Screenshot: Flickr/2015

Choy, who declined to be interviewed for this story, maintained a close relationship with English over the years. He has also donated heavily to members of the Legislature, including Cullen, English and others.

Choy’s political connections have led to lucrative government contracts.

In 2020, H2O Process Systems secured a contract to clean Honolulu buses totaling more than $3.4 million, paid for with federal relief funds. That same year, Maui County also contracted Choy’s company to spray buses and other businesses, including those in English’s hometown of Hana.

Officials initially said those cleanings would cost $26,000 in the summer of 2020. The total cost ended up being more than $200,000, according to county procurement documents, because the company’s contract was extended through December 2020.

The company’s work in Maui County has also been profitable. Since 2016, H2O Process Systems has received more than $12.4 million in “no-bid” work in the county, mostly to provide and install machinery for wastewater plants, county procurement documents show.

Water Scalping

In fact, a new wastewater plant on Maui links Choy’s company with the charging documents filed by federal prosecutors on Tuesday.

The information documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office on Tuesday lay out the charges against Cullen and English and detail the steps they took to assist Choy and his business.

Cullen’s court documents indicate that in 2015 he helped to push a bill that “provided for a feasibility study and pilot project for the collection and treatment of wastewater.” Prosecutors allege that Cullen introduced the measure in favor of Choy’s company after receiving more than $20,000 in poker chips from Choy while in Louisiana a year prior.

“The Legislature’s passage of the bill resulted in a subcontract being issued to Person A’s company,” the court document states.

Details in the document point to that bill being Act 229. Cullen helped advance the measure as House Bill 1394 in 2015. The law required the state Department of Transportation to conduct a water scalping feasibility study on state airports. The measure set aside $8.6 million for the study.

H2O Process Systems has worked on a wastewater project that resulted from a study Cullen helped to push through the Legislature. 

In 2016, the state awarded a contract for the study worth $1.5 million to CH2M Hill Inc., a Colorado engineering company. That firm produced the report alongside R.M. Towill, another local company that deals with wastewater.

The study was completed in 2017, and based on that study, the DOT determined that the Kahului airport has “substantial potential for the development of alternative water resources,” DOT Director Jade Butay wrote in a notice in 2019 requesting that the project be exempted from certain environmental review laws.

The DOT issued two awards related to that project. One contract for construction management went to Bow Construction Management Services Inc. and another award for site construction was awarded to Jas. W. Glover LTD, the general contractor.

H2O Process Systems wasn’t listed as a subcontractor on documents provided by the DOT. Officials said Thursday afternoon they were unable to confirm that the company ever performed work on the project.

However, H2O Process Systems says on its website that it has worked on the project and lists the Kahului airport wastewater system among its ongoing projects.

On its website, the company states that it “provided all turn-key systems, processing equipment, controls and instruments in order to bring (the project) to fruition.”

“When all (is) said and done this project will allow the airport to scalp a substantial portion of wastewater that was previously being treated and discharged into the ocean from its facility on-site and reuse the treated effluent for large irrigation plots,” the company’s website says.

Prolific Donor

Choy is a prolific donor, as are his immediate family members and business associates. Choy, his family members, and his employees from various companies have donated more than $356,000 to political campaigns since 2014, according to campaign finance data. Of that, Choy has contributed more than $160,000 to the elections and reelections of numerous Democrats.

Choy himself has donated to 55 campaigns — including 29 sitting lawmakers — since 2014. Money has gone to former Gov. Neil Abercrombie and current Gov. David Ige. He has most recently contributed to former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s campaign for governor, and to Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s campaign.

 

Cullen accepted donations from Choy totaling $6,000.

But the top recipient of Choy’s contributions over the years has been English, who was the Senate majority leader until he resigned in May 2021 saying he was suffering from the effects of long Covid.

English gave up his legislative seat five months after he’d been caught by federal investigators in a car with Choy who had just handed him an envelope stuffed with cash, according to the charging documents. English tried to hide the envelope under the car floor mat, prosecutors said.

English is alleged to have taken bribes totaling more than $18,000 to first introduce a measure on cesspool conversions in 2020 and then to kill the same measure. Cullen is alleged to have accepted bribes of more than $20,000.

In an interview in 2020, Choy said that he and his colleagues had begun reducing the amount of donations they made to political candidates. In fact, he said he would stop attending certain fundraisers.

He said he has tried to avoid “any type of impropriety, and any type of perceptions in that way.”

Since mid-2020, Choy made $18,500 in donations to six campaigns. In June 2020, he gave $1,000 to Jacob Aki, a Senate spokesman and former English staff member who at the time was running for Honolulu City Council.

Choy gave $3,500 to Blangiardi’s campaign a month before the 2020 general election, and another $4,000 to the mayor last March.

Honolulu City Councilman Calvin Say’s campaign received $2,000 from Choy in October 2020. Last year, Choy gave $2,000 each to Sen. Lynn Decoite, who replaced English on the Senate, and Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, another Maui lawmaker.

Choy’s most recent political donation came in November, when he gave Caldwell’s gubernatorial campaign $4,000.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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