A federal judge sentenced former Hawaii lawmaker J. Kalani English to more than three years in prison Tuesday for taking thousands of dollars in bribes to influence wastewater policy in the state.

English had a long political career as a Maui County councilman before serving in the Legislature for two decades. Since 2014, he was the Senate majority leader.

Maui County locator mapEnglish was arrested in January 2021 after a years-long investigation by the FBI revealed that he accepted more than $18,000 in cash and other gifts, including meals and Las Vegas hotel rooms, in exchange for influencing the course of wastewater legislation.

Hawaii District Judge Susan Mollway sentenced English to a 40-month prison sentence followed by three years on supervised release. English was also ordered to pay a $100,000 fine. He wasn’t arrested Tuesday but will be required to report to a federal detention center on Aug. 16.

Former Senator J. Kalani English leaves US District Court after being sentenced.
Former Sen. J. Kalani English, center, leaves U.S. District Court after being sentenced to 40 months in federal prison. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Mollway said English readily accepted bribes over the course of several years. And he did so while not appearing to need more money. He owned several properties in Hana and ran a consulting business earning additional income on top of his pay as a legislator. The case, Mollway said, was a matter of greed.

“What you have done here is so serious, so detrimental to the fabric of society, that surely a serious sentence is warranted,” the judge said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Sorenson said that the prison sentence handed down Tuesday “sends the message that those who peddle their elected offices for their own financial gain and greed will be sentenced severely.”

English asked for a reduced sentence of 30 months. Prosecutors were pushing for a 42-month sentence.

English could have been sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison, although sentencing guidelines in his case suggested he should spend between 37 and 46 months behind bars. Sorenson said the government considered English’s cooperation with federal authorities when recommending prison time.

“We want an individual who is going to accept responsibility right away, cooperate with our investigation – which is critical to moving forward in these types of cases,” Sorenson said. “We need (to send) the message that you’re not going to get hammered if you cooperate. But you will get a significant sentence.”

Neither English nor his attorney Richard Sing would comment after leaving the federal courthouse.

While addressing the court, English said he was disappointed with himself and said he takes responsibility for his actions. He plans to spend time reflecting on and reevaluating his life.

The case, he said, has been “devastating to my life.”

English retired from the Senate in 2021. He was arrested by federal agents in January of that year. But the bribery revelations only came to light in February, when English was charged along with former state Rep. Ty Cullen for taking part in a scheme to influence bills dealing with wastewater, sewer systems and cesspools in Hawaii.

English first drew the government’s attention in 2019, when he asked Honolulu businessman and prolific political donor Milton Choy for hotel rooms in Las Vegas. At the time, Choy, who is only referenced as Person A in court documents, was already working as an FBI informant.

English accepted thousands of dollars in 2020 to first introduce a bill and then kill it.

“It’s easy to kill bills, it’s hard to pass them,” he said in one conversation cited in court records.

Sing, English’s attorney, said that the former lawmaker only solicited one gift from Choy, hotel rooms in Las Vegas. All other bribes were made after Choy approached English.

“But Mr. English could not withstand the temptation,” Sing said.

Mollway rejected that argument.

“What you did was not a momentary giving in to temptation,” Mollway told English. “You had the mindset – not a momentary lapse. You had a mindset that you could do this, and it appears you didn’t think you could get caught.”

Cullen, another lawmaker prosecutors say took bribes from Choy, is scheduled for sentencing in October. Along with English, he pleaded guilty to felony charges in February.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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