Two former Hawaii lawmakers who took part in a bribery scheme to benefit a wastewater company pleaded guilty Tuesday to felony charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department after a years-long investigation.

Former Sen. J. Kalani English, 55, and former Rep. Ty Cullen, 41, could face prison sentences of up to 20 years and may have to pay fines up to $250,000.

Cullen and English appeared with their attorneys via videoconference in U.S. District Court in Honolulu. Judge Susan Mollway set sentencing for July 5 for both former lawmakers.

English and Cullen were released and required to post a $50,000 unsecured bond. Both are restricted from traveling outside the state although the judge approved a trip to Kauai this weekend for Cullen.

Senator J. Kalani English discusses retirement after haveing ‘long haul’ symptoms of COVID-19.
Former Sen. J. Kalani English pleaded guilty to felony wire fraud charges Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In plea agreements with federal prosecutors, Cullen and English pleaded guilty to felony wire fraud stemming from their failure to disclose tens of thousands of dollars in cash payments and other gifts. Prosecutors agreed not to pursue additional charges related to bribery and acceptance of “other items of value known to the government,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Sorenson said during the hearings.

English must forfeit $15,300 while Cullen must forfeit $23,000. Those amounts are equal to the amount of the bribes lawmakers failed to disclose, Sorenson said.

The former lawmakers also agreed to waive their right to appeal the case to a higher court.

English and Cullen could receive a reduction in their sentences because they quickly accepted responsibility for their actions; the charges were just made public earlier this month. They will also be required to pay a special assessment of $100 each.

Although federal prosecutors and defense attorneys may ask the court for leniency, it’s ultimately up to the judge to decide sentencing, Mollway said.

The plea agreements also require Cullen and English to cooperate with the federal government and law enforcement officials in the justice department’s ongoing investigation into the bribery cases. The former lawmakers may be called to testify against others charged as a result of the investigation.

Sorenson recapped the charges laid out against English and Cullen during their respective hearings.

English, who was a member of a legislative working group trying to deal with Hawaii’s cesspool and waste discharge issue, provided previews of draft reports to a local wastewater contractor and introduced legislation in 2020 favorable to the contractor in exchange for more than $18,000 worth of bribes, Las Vegas hotel rooms and meals paid for by the contractor, identified as Person A in federal court documents.

“This arrangement ended up depriving the people of Hawaii from what they were entitled to in the form of your honest work as a state legislator. Is that a fair statement?” Mollway asked.

“Yes,” English said.

Later, Mollway asked why he did not disclose the bribery payments on his gift forms.

“I didn’t think about it, your honor,” English said, adding that his office kept a log of other small gifts that came to the office.

Because those bribery payments weren’t delivered to his office, English said he didn’t consider logging them.

Sorenson said English should understand why his failure to disclose those payments was wrong.

“He understands he had a duty to report the money he received,” Sorenson said. “And he didn’t specifically because he didn’t want the public to know he was taking bribes from Person A.”

Rep Ty Cullen during House Finance Meeting. Room 308, Capitol. 5 april 2016.
Former Rep. Ty Cullen also pleaded guilty to felony charges Tuesday. Both lawmakers acknowledged they took money and other personal benefits to help a contractor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Cullen accepted more than $20,000 over the years to introduce legislation favorable to the wastewater company.

Cullen did not make any statements during his arraignment. He agreed with the facts in his case that Sorenson laid out.

Milton Choy, the Honolulu businessman at the center of the bribery probe, has been working with federal agents on the investigations for years, according to his attorney, Michael Green.

Green said Choy is expected to face charges himself in the next 90 days.

Although bribery is a felony under state law, Cullen and English are charged with honest services wire fraud, a federal law that prohibits the use of “wire, radio or television communication” in any scheme intended to defraud the public.

In both cases, prosecutors allege that the former lawmakers did just that when they failed to list the illegal bribes on mandatory annual gift disclosures filed with the state.

Read the plea agreements below.

 

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