House Speaker Scott Saiki was blunt Wednesday when he spoke with reporters about the indictments of two former leading state lawmakers earlier this week.

“This is really bad,” he said. “This is public corruption. I’m not sure how much worse it could get.”

The federal wire fraud charges against former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former House Finance Committee Vice Chairman Ty Cullen, both Democrats, for allegedly accepting cash bribes and financial benefits in exchange for influencing legislation has put the entire Legislature “under a cloud,” as one lawmaker put it.

But the new charges are just the latest in a string of investigations that have tarred Hawaii’s ruling Democratic Party. As the accusations pile up, it becomes ever more difficult for Democrats to credibly claim that each new mess is an “isolated incident.”

Saiki tried that approach as he discussed the bribery allegations with reporters at the State Capitol Wednesday, but even he didn’t seem entirely certain. “I would hope it’s uncommon,” he said of the alleged exchange of cash for influence.

House Speaker Scott Saiki discusses the federal charges filed against former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former House Finance Committee Vice Chairman Ty Cullen. “I know that members of the public are outraged,” he said. “I share their outrage.” Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat/2022

In other states, this kind of parade of public figures being accused of wrongdoing or outright criminal conduct might have real political implications. People might vote for a different party, or vote out the incumbents.

But in Hawaii today, that isn’t terribly likely, said Neal Milner, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“There will be a lot of comments like ‘They’re all corrupt,’ and all of those sorts of things, but the issue is whether that translates into any changing of votes,” Milner said.

The problem is the Hawaii Republican Party is “so bereft of candidates,” he said.

Milner points out that the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s recent published poll of gubernatorial candidates barely mentioned GOP candidates Paul Morgan and Lynn Mariano, and made no attempt to gauge their name recognition or their standing with voters. Conventional political wisdom holds those candidates have almost no chance of winning.

Republicans also struggle in each election cycle to field candidates for the Legislature, which is obviously an essential task if the party ever hopes to use that platform to reshape or clean up state politics.

In the 2020 election the party failed to field candidates for 22 of 51 House races, and couldn’t find candidates to run in nine of the 13 Senate seats that were up for grabs that year.

Certainly Cullen and English would have been in political peril this year if they were still in office, but English resigned at the end of the legislative session last year, and Cullen resigned minutes before charges against him were announced Tuesday.

The charges come in the wake of the highly publicized 2019 convictions of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his former deputy prosecutor wife, Katherine, who were convicted of taking part in a conspiracy to frame Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the 2013 theft of her mailbox.

Former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro has also received a letter indicating he is also the target of a federal investigation.

This kind of infuriating drip-drip of accusations, including the recent indictments of former Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong and former Managing Director Roy Amemiya, tend to happen when one party has near-absolute control, said Christopher Mooney, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“When you’ve got a one-party political situation — in this case a one-party state — it breaks down the sort of natural competitive process by which a lot of this stuff gets ferreted out early,” he said. “Transparency suffers because there’s not enough incentive for one party to bring to light the malfeasance of the other.”

And he added: “There is an old saying around here, ‘You can’t beat somebody with nobody.’ Elections are choices. If you can’t put up an alternative candidate, you’re not going to win.”

Hawaii has arguably had one example of voter backlash against misconduct by elected officials in recent history, at a time when there was a similar string of embarrassing accusations and charges against Democrats.

Former Honolulu City Councilwoman Rene Mansho and former state senator Marshall Ige were jailed on criminal charges in 2002, and former City Councilman Andy Mirikitani was sentenced to prison in late 2001.

Prominent United Public Workers union leader Gary Rodrigues, a powerful figure in the state Democratic Party, was under federal indictment in 2002 in a case that eventually landed him in prison, and city prosecutors that year were pursuing a well-publicized investigation that targeted campaign donors of then-Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris.

People were talking a lot about corruption that year, and former Maui Mayor Linda Lingle was elected governor in 2002, marking the first time since statehood that Hawaii voters picked a Republican for that office.

Rep Bob McDermott abortion discussion on House Floor. 11 april 2017
Rep. Bob McDermott on the House floor. Nowadays “it’s got to be a pretty big crime” for the voters to get excited about it, he said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

State Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican who is running against U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz this year, points out Lingle had a “breathtaking” record of accomplishment, a solid track record as a Maui County Council member and Maui mayor, and spent years rebuilding the state Republican Party and preparing for that election.

But he also said the political environment at the time was helpful. “These guys were making mistakes every week.” He cited what he called “dishonesty and graft” throughout government.

“Luck is when opportunity meets preparation, and she was prepared, and she had the opportunity to knock it out of the park,” he said. “Do I see parallels to today? Not as much.”

Communication has changed, with people getting their information in all kinds of different ways, and “we’re less shocked as a society by these things, I suppose,” McDermott said. “So, it’s got to be a pretty big crime for us to get excited about it.”

Saiki said Wednesday he shares the public outrage over the allegations against English and Cullen.

“They broke the law. They compromised the Legislature. They violated the public trust. The people of Hawaii deserve better from their elected officials,” he told reporters.

He said House Democrats will “mandate and strengthen” regular ethics training for House members, and will fully cooperate with the federal investigation.

He also noted that if the lawmakers are convicted, they could lose half of their state pension benefits under a new law passed by the Legislature last year, now Act 84.

“The bottom line is this,” Saiki said. “There is no place for this kind of conduct in the Hawaii Legislature. I pledge to do everything in my power as Speaker of the House to rebuild integrity and trust in our legislative process.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi released a written statement Wednesday saying that “the events that unfolded yesterday were surprising and unfortunate and cast a pall over the Legislature and the work that we are trying to accomplish for the people of Hawaii.”

“We must rededicate ourselves and work to rebuild the public’s trust in government,” he said in his statement.

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