As former Honolulu permitting workers admit guilt in a yearslong bribery scandal, some of the people who paid them off remain anonymous. 

With the exception of an architect who was indicted and pleaded guilty in the scheme, federal prosecutors have shielded the identities of those who bribed employees in the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting. 

The secrecy has some community members and advocates calling for accountability for those who used money to gain an advantage in the city’s permitting system.  

“When people bribe and bend the system their way, then it hurts everyone,” said Cheryl Cudiamat, president of the local engineering firm Structural Hawaii, which often applies for permits from DPP. “And as they say, it takes two to play. It’s not only the city officials that accepted it, but I feel equal justice should be served to those who offered the bribes.”

Building construction located on Fern Street. Possibile photographs to illustrate DPP Department of Planning Permitting stories.
Honolulu’s building permit process was corrupted by bribery, federal prosecutors have shown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Natalie Iwasa, a community watchdog and certified fraud examiner, agreed.

Isn’t it illegal to bribe our government employees?” she asked. “It seems to me the public is not served well by keeping that information secret.”

The indictments and plea agreements filed so far describe the bribers in vague terms.

For instance, former senior building inspector Jason Dadez admitted to taking at least $1,000 to nullify a violation for an architect and third-party reviewer who is only identified in court records as having a client with a residence on Ala Wai Boulevard. 

‘It Takes Two To Play’

Dadez also took at least $2,000 from the owners of a restaurant in Waipahu and accepted some $9,900 in bribes from an unnamed solar contractor, the plea agreement states. Dadez was sentenced in July to 18 months in prison. He was scheduled to turn himself in on Wednesday, according to court records.

“I would like to know why they’re not being charged,” said Megan Kau, the attorney representing Bill Wong, the only DPP customer charged in the case. “In my opinion, if there were other architects, draftsmen, et cetera paying people they should be charged as well.”

According to former federal public defender Ali Silvert, it’s standard practice for prosecutors to conceal the names of witnesses. 

Before a trial, prosecutors have an interest in keeping secret the identities of people who may testify in court, he said. They want to do what they can to protect cooperating sources from intimidation, according to Silvert. 

“They don’t put that out there for their protection and safety,” he said. 

However, when defendants plead guilty and take a deal, there is no trial, and the identities of those witnesses may stay hidden forever. 

Jennie Javonillo walks out of the US District Court after receiving a 30-month prison term.
Former Honolulu building inspector Jennie Javonillo received a 30-month prison term for bribery. Those who paid her off remain anonymous. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Former building inspector Jennie Javonillo, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, admitted to accepting money from several customers over the years, including an architect, two draftsmen, an engineer and a builder. 

But the identities of those people were not released by prosecutors.

Attorneys for Dadez and Javonillo did not respond to requests for comment.

Similarly, three years after a prominent local engineer, Frank James Lyon, was busted in a major bribery scandal spanning from Hawaii to Micronesia, the public still doesn’t know which state agencies – or which state officials – were engaging in the corruption.  

“You may never know,” Silvert said.  

Licensing Concerns

Iwasa, who has an accounting license through the state, said that raises concerns about professional licensing. While Wong is likely to get his architecture license yanked by a state board after his sentencing, anonymous bribers can continue to do business with DPP. The board that regulates them wouldn’t know to discipline them.

How would they know?” she asked.

Sometimes, Silvert said, a cooperating witness may not be identified in court filings right away but may be charged later on. 

In the case of former state Rep. Ty Cullen and former state Sen. J. Kalani English, the politicians pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a person identified in court records as “Person A.” 

The media soon identified the individual as Milton Choy, a businessman and prolific campaign donor who has secured millions of dollars in government contracts. His attorney Michael Green said earlier this year that his client had been working with federal investigators for years. 

Green has said he expects his client to be charged in the scheme within weeks. 

The U.S. Attorney’s office did not respond to questions about its practices other than to point to U.S. Department of Justice policy that cautions against releasing “non-public, sensitive information.” 

When the government is prosecuting a case, it may offer immunity or non-prosecution agreements to those willing to help the case, Silvert said, and that is a means to an end. 

“Just because they’re cooperating doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be named and outed,” he said. 

“The other side of that same coin is we want people to cooperate. We want whistleblowers, and if it takes a certain amount of secrecy or protection of identity to get them to cooperate or whistleblow, then it serves a legitimate purpose,” he added. “In cases like this, how do they know what happened unless they have someone who was part of the transaction talking to them?”

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