Honolulu architect William Wong pleaded guilty last year to paying over $100,000 in bribes to city permitting employees, and he faces prison time at his sentencing in October. 

But for now, he’s still working as an architect and interacting with the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting. 

Wong’s state-issued architect license is in good standing. The state board that oversees his profession just renewed his license for another two years, a government database shows. And he continues to submit permit applications to the city permitting department, according to his attorney, Megan Kau.

“Up until his license is revoked, he’ll be able to do that,” Kau said. 

View of Alewa Heights located above Honolulu, Hawaii.
Permits for residential and commercial projects can take months or longer at DPP. Those who offered bribes to city employees got their plans expedited, according to court records. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Hawaii Board of Professional Engineers, Architects, Surveyors and Landscape Architects has the power to suspend or revoke licenses, but it hasn’t taken disciplinary action in Wong’s case even though he pleaded guilty to a job-related felony over a year ago. 

“It’s so disappointing on so many levels,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of the government accountability organization Common Cause Hawaii. “License revocation should happen right away.” 

The board’s position is that it needs a conviction in hand before it can discipline Wong, and it doesn’t consider him convicted until he is sentenced. Wong’s sentencing, originally scheduled for August 2021, has been delayed twice, court records show. It is now scheduled for Oct. 5. 

“The imposition of disciplinary action by a Board does not happen overnight, even in cases involving the commission of a crime,” said April Rogers, the communications officer for the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

The licensing law contains no prohibition against being arrested for a crime or pleading guilty to a crime,” Rogers said.

But the board can revoke a license after a licensee engages in professional misconduct or fails to maintain a record of trustworthiness, fair dealing and financial integrity, according to state law. From DPP’s perspective, Wong already admitted to that last year when he pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud, Dawn Takeuchi Apuna, the department’s deputy director, said in a statement. 

The CEO of Asia Pacific Architectural Consultants, Wong, 72, engaged in a yearslong bribery scheme, according to court records. In a department that routinely takes months to issue permits for even simple projects, Wong had a leg up. 

From about February 2016 through March 2020, Wong paid DPP employees on an almost monthly basis to expedite the approval of his projects, according to his plea agreement. That included at least $28,400 to building plans examiner Kanani Padeken and over $89,000 to Wayne Inouye, the former chief building inspector.

Padeken has also pleaded guilty to a federal charge and is slated to be sentenced in October. Inouye pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a trial scheduled for August.  

In exchange for Wong’s guilty plea, prosecutors agreed not to file additional charges, according to the plea agreement. He could face a maximum of 20 years in prison and pay a fine up to $250,000, plus a three-year term of supervised release, according to the plea deal, but Kau said the sentencing guidelines are around three years of imprisonment. 

DPP is already doing what it can to distance itself from Wong, according to Takeuchi Apuna.

DPP Deputy Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna at the Bill 41 signing held at Kailua Beach Park.
DPP Deputy Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna believes Wong’s license should’ve been revoked already. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Within two weeks of his indictment and guilty plea in April 2021, DPP suspended his registration as a third-party reviewer, a position that allows qualified professionals to review plans on DPP’s behalf. But when it comes to Wong submitting permits, Takeuchi Apuna said DPP doesn’t have the authority to reject them and continues to process them.

Takeuchi Apuna said she inquired with DCCA last year about whether Wong’s license should be suspended due to the indictment and guilty plea. 

I was told that they would evaluate the situation and proceed as necessary,” she said. 

However, without any change in his status as of last month, she said she filed a complaint with DCCA on April 5.

According to Rogers, discipline for licensees typically starts with a complaint to the DCCA’s Regulated Industries Complaints Office. Complaints can be filed by members of the public or board members themselves, she said. 

If a RICO investigation results in credible evidence of a violation, the agency can petition the board to impose discipline on the licensee through a settlement agreement or contested case hearing, Rogers said. 

Importantly, when it comes to disciplinary action before a Board, licensees are entitled to due process,” she said. 

“Some licensees choose not to voluntarily surrender their license even after being convicted of a crime related to their profession, in which case a contested-case hearing will have to be commenced and RICO will have to prove the charges before discipline can be imposed by the Board.” 

In another high-profile bribery case, it took more than two years for the perpetrator to lose his license. 

Frank Lyon, a well-known local engineer, pleaded guilty in January 2019 to paying over $400,000 over the course of a decade to government officials in Hawaii and Micronesia to win contracting work for his company Lyon and Associates. 

It took RICO until June 2020, a year and a half, to petition the board for disciplinary action against Lyon. A hearing was held in December 2020, and the hearings officer recommended license revocation in January 2021. 

Lyon didn’t officially lose his license until April 2021, the board decision shows. 

In Wong’s case, Rogers said that RICO has received a complaint and it is “pending investigation.”

If it takes this long for the board to take action, maybe its processes need to change, Ma said.

“We want our government to function ethically and not have a pay-to-play scheme, and this person who was involved in pay-to-play still has his license,” she said.

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