The U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed felony charges against two former Hawaii lawmakers for allegedly taking bribes in connection with legislation regarding cesspools and wastewater management.
Former Hawaii Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English illegally accepted more than $15,000 worth of bribes to kill a proposal that would increase funding for wastewater management solutions and cesspools in the state, federal prosecutors allege in court documents filed Tuesday.
Prosecutors also allege that former Rep. Ty Cullen accepted more than $23,000 worth of bribes to influence a similar cesspool proposal. Cullen is also alleged to have accepted casino chips and other gifts in Louisiana.
Cullen resigned from the House Tuesday, Speaker Scott Saiki said in a statement.
According to documents filed in federal court in Hawaii, the lawmakers took bribes from a business owner identified as “Person A” in the charging documents. Officials did not identify Person A, and U.S. Attorney Clare Connors, who briefed reporters Tuesday, would not say whether Cullen and English were bribed by the same individual or business.
What’s important, Connors said, is that Person A in both cases paid the lawmakers money to influence the course of legislative measures related to cesspools. The court documents say that Person A’s business was “well positioned to avail itself of publicly financed cesspool conversion projects.”
The FBI investigated both cases, but neither lawmaker has been arrested yet. Connors said they would have initial court appearances where charges would be read soon.
English did not respond to phone calls Tuesday. In a written statement, his attorney Rick Sing said English has so far cooperated with the federal government and plans to plead guilty.
“Kalani is extremely remorseful and deeply sorry for his actions,” Sing’s statement said.
English retired at the end of the 2021 legislative session in May. He said he would be leaving politics because of complications related to contracting Covid-19. But court documents indicate that he was under investigation by the FBI since at least January of 2021.
Cullen was the vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, an influential post where he played a part in directing government spending on construction projects.
Cullen and English could face sentences of up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 each if they are convicted.
Connors wouldn’t say if the bribe money had been seized by federal agents or if either lawmaker was required to pay it back.
While accepting bribes is a crime under state law, federal prosecutors are bringing charges under federal criminal laws dealing with wire fraud. The prosecutors allege that Cullen and English broke federal law when they filed mandatory gift disclosure statements on the internet but failed to include the bribery payments.
In English’s case, the prosecutors note he did disclose other gifts, like chili pepper water, and goody bags, but not the bribes.
“By disclosing these legitimate gifts while concealing the bribes that he accepted for official action, English defrauded the citizens of Hawaii, who were entitled to English’s honest and faithful services and entitled to know that English had failed to provide those services,” Connors wrote in the information document.
Connors and other officials declined to say if the FBI was investigating any other state lawmakers.
“Corruption poses a fundamental threat to our way of life, and it will not be tolerated,” FBI Special Agent Steven Merrill said during an afternoon press conference.
‘All Part Of The Work’
The court documents that lay out the charges against English include excerpts of conversations he had with Person A. Connors would not say if Person A worked with the FBI during the investigation and declined to talk about any specifics regarding the investigation.
In 2019, English agreed to provide Person A with a draft copy of the working group’s report in exchange for a two-night stay in Las Vegas totaling $1,805 and for hosting family members from Tahiti for a dinner in Honolulu. Person A told English he couldn’t make the dinner but gave him an envelope with $500 in cash instead.
“For like, you know, for dinner, but thank you for sending that report,” Person A told English.
In 2020, Person A paid English $1,000 after he introduced Senate Bill 2380. The measure would have funded a waste management pilot project, which ostensibly could have been directed toward Person A’s business. At a dinner where the two had discussed the bill, Person A picked up the $592 tab.
Later that March, Person A switched gears and decided that SB 2380 needed to die, and then paid English $10,000 to make sure it would be defeated.
The measure stalled before getting to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, much like dozens of other measures that died when the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered the Legislature.
“This is all part of the work, right,” English told Person A. “Like I said, to pass a bill is difficult. To kill a bill … easy.”
The FBI caught up with English in January 2021. English and Person A were pulled over in Kakaako after English accepted another $5,000 from the business owner. According to the information document, English tried to hide the money from federal agents under a floor mat.
The retired lawmaker’s most recently filed financial disclosure from 2021 indicates he owed at least $511,000 in mortgage and other debt to four different banks.
He was also the owner of six properties, most of them in his hometown of Hana, worth an estimated value of $4.5 million. His disclosure also lists him as the owner of his own consulting business and as the owner of Ula LLC, which he lists as a jewelry company worth less than $10,000.
Poker Chips And ‘Plenty Debt’
Cullen’s dealings with the unnamed Person A began in 2014, when both went to New Orleans for a wastewater conference.
Cullen was able to gain access to an exclusive gambling area in a casino while accompanying Person A, who provided Cullen with at least $22,000 in poker chips.
The U.S. attorneys allege that Person A’s company was later able to attain a subcontract through a measure that Cullen helped to move through the Legislature in 2015.
In late 2019, Person A approached Cullen to work on more cesspool legislation. Person A agreed to funnel the lawmaker more money after Cullen said he was “paying plenty debt.”
Cullen’s most recent financial disclosure indicates he has yet to pay at least $25,000 in student loans.
Like English, Cullen also received $10,000 for helping to kill a cesspool proposal in 2020, but prosecutors don’t say which cesspool proposal from that year.
They allege Cullen most recently took a $5,000 bribe on Oct. 8. In all, he accepted cash payments totaling $25,000 since 2019, they say.
Cullen did not return a phone message seeking comment on the bribery allegations.
Read the court documents below.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell