A longtime bastion of Hawaii politics who championed Hawaiian culture and progressive environmental reforms, former Senate majority leader J. Kalani English’s rise to power over a 24-year political career was undone last month when he admitted taking cash bribes to steer wastewater legislation.
In his hometown of Hana, community leaders expressed a sense of loss over the fall of the 55-year-old lawmaker who long gave a voice to Maui residents who often feel overlooked by the state government.
Others said the federal fraud charges against English have merely solidified the idea that corruption is endemic to politics.
Elected to the Senate when he was 34, English was secure in his position, often winning reelection campaigns outright in the primary. But his behavior occasionally occupied an ethically gray area and he was sometimes criticized for pushing legislation that went against the interests of his constituents.
He also faced questions about past behavior, including a cocaine arrest in college that was expunged from his record and an investigation into a citizen complaint that English had scored free trips between Maui and Oahu on Hawaii Air Ambulance flights.
Known for introducing laws that sought to preserve local culture and values, English pushed forward green energy legislation, tried to crystalize the state’s use of Hawaiian language in public communication and in courts, and funneled money toward capital improvement projects in his former district of Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe.
He has often remarked that his biggest legislative success was a bill enacted in 2017 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by adopting many of the goals set forth by the Paris Agreement of 2015. Thanks to that, Hawaii became the first state to commit to combating climate change through strategies laid out in the global treaty as it was being abandoned by former President Donald Trump.
More recently, English proved popular with his constituents when he asked the governor to send in the National Guard soldiers who blocked virtually all nonresidents from entering East Maui at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, a measure intended to hamper the spread of disease in a remote community that lacks medical resources. Residents also appreciated a rare break from overtourism.
But the power English amassed over 19 years in the Senate and two terms on the Maui County Council already had begun to evaporate months before federal prosecutors brought charges against him and former Rep. Ty Cullen, who also pleaded guilty to felony charges for taking money and other benefits from a contractor in exchange for promoting and killing legislation.
English retired from public service in May at the end of the 2021 legislative session, saying he was retreating to the quiet of Hana to work the land and restore his health. He blamed his sudden and surprising exit from public service on the symptoms of long-haul Covid-19, which he compared to “a bad hangover” that doesn’t go away.
In an opinion column “Sad to see senator go,” The Maui News editorialized that English had championed a refreshing brand of politics devoid of partisanship or self-promotion.
Although he said his Covid infection was initially mild, English later said he developed a bout of brain fog and fatigue that made it difficult to do his job. He said he struggled with simple cognitive tasks, such as organizing folders of paperwork.
In court last week, English said he still receives twice-weekly medical treatments to combat lingering coronavirus symptoms.
“He did his best for Hana, but we can’t understand why he would do something that betrayed all of us.” — former Maui County Councilman Bob Carroll
Court documents indicate that the FBI had been investigating English since at least January 2021 — months before his resignation. At that time he and a business owner were pulled over while driving in Kakaako on Oahu. According to court documents, English tried to conceal from federal agents a $5,000 bribe he’d just accepted from the business owner by tucking the money under a floor mat.
Richard Sing, English’s attorney, did not return requests for comment for this story.
People who have been in English’s camp throughout his political career say the scandal has been a blow that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Lucienne de Naie, an East Maui environmental activist who has been acquainted with English for decades, said she didn’t always agree with English but thought of him as smart, progressive and visionary.
“Like many, I’m disappointed,” she said. “I don’t assume that this is the way government has to work or should work. And as a person who had voted for him many times and followed his career and thought highly of him, I was really shocked.”
Former Maui County Councilman Bob Carroll, who resides in Hana, also feels let down by English.
“He did his best for Hana, but we can’t understand why he would do something that betrayed all of us,” Carroll said in an email. “All we can do now is move forward and work to make things better for our people.”
More than a dozen people who live in English’s old district either declined to talk on the record about the disgraced former lawmaker or did not return requests for comment.
Not without detractors, English had critics who were sometimes so fed up with his decisions as a lawmaker that they filed paperwork to campaign against him.
He drew harsh criticism in 2012 for voting in favor — but “with reservations” — of a bill that would have built an undersea cable connecting Molokai and Lanai to Oahu and constructed wind turbines on both islands to generate power for Oahu.
Voting with reservations is a way for legislators to express concerns with the legislation even while they are voting for it.
Molokai resident Kanohowailuku Helm, who publicly mocked English’s vote with reservations as akin to being partially pregnant, was so disappointed that he pulled papers to run against English on the same day as the cable vote.
For years, English rallied for improvements to the condemned Hana Pier, underscoring the importance of having an alternate route to transport people and goods in and out of Hana if an emergency were to interrupt usage of the highway and airport.
But the majority of his constituents didn’t want the pier improvements, worried that a newly functioning pier could bring an influx of commercial activity to rural East Maui. Fierce community opposition to the project ultimately swayed transportation officials to decide to tear it down.
English sponsored a failed bill in 2013 that would have made it easier for celebrities to sue paparazzi and others for taking unwanted photographs of them. Steven Tyler, the Aerosmith lead singer who lives part time on Maui, suggested the legislation to English after unflattering photos of him on Maui surfaced online.
Despite these unpopular moves, English’s sure footing with voters never wavered.
In its endorsement of English’s 2018 reelection campaign, MauiTime described him as a “consistent and efficient” senator, citing his many years of legislative experience as well as his advocacy for issues ranging from climate change to care of older adults.
That year he easily won the primary with 60% of the vote and faced no opponent in the general election
He was also reelected in the primary election in 2014, winning nearly 75% of the vote.
In 2005, English paid a $1,000 fine as part of a settlement stemming from an investigation by the State Ethics Commission into the citizen complaint about free trips on Hawaii Air Ambulance flights.
The complaint also accused English of staying in a condo and using a car owned by Hawaii Air Ambulance’s chief executive officer. English did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement.
English also was forced to face questions about a cocaine arrest in 1988 when he was a third-year student at Hawaii Loa College. He pleaded guilty to one count of promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree. But the court deferred his guilty plea and ordered him to complete 50 hours of community service and submit to two years of drug tests instead.
Oahu Circuit Judge Wendell Huddy dismissed the charge in 1990, giving English a clean criminal record. Nonetheless, his felony arrest would come back to haunt him in 1996, when he was named a nominee to fill the Maui County Council seat vacated by Councilman Thomas Morrow, who had died in an airplane crash.
At a public hearing, a county councilman asked English about it point blank.
“When I was a student, I made a mistake,” English told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in a prepared statement when the incident bubbled up on the eve of his appointment to the county council.
“The intent of this judicial process was to prevent what happened from ever being used against me,” he said. “The charges were dismissed, and I was not convicted of any crime.”
He asked for the public’s understanding and stressed the fact that the judge felt that he should be given a second chance.
The expunged drug charge resurfaced again in 2016 when English joined a hui that applied for a state license to operate a medical marijuana dispensary since Hawaii health regulators prohibit members of companies seeking a dispensary license from having felony convictions.
An advocate for decriminalizing marijuana, English also drew suspicion for introducing and voting on marijuana bills at the same time that he was vying for a potentially lucrative dispensary license.
The senator denied having a conflict of interest.
“We are part-time legislators,” he said in an interview with The Maui News. “We are expected to have outside jobs.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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