A retired Maui County wastewater maintenance mechanic pleaded guilty Monday to accepting bribes in the form of cash deposits and flights to Las Vegas from businessman Milton Choy in exchange for helping to direct contracts to Choy’s company, H2O Process Systems.

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Wilfredo Savella, 71, could face up to 10 years in federal prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He also must pay $41,704, equal to the amount of bribes he’s accused of taking. In exchange for his guilty plea, federal prosecutors agreed not to bring additional charges of wire fraud and money laundering, which carry heftier penalties. He may also receive a reduction in his sentencing. Savella was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond.

Savella, who worked 34 years for Maui County, is the latest public employee to be charged as part of the Choy bribery scheme. A former state senator is serving prison time while another is set to be sentenced in January. Stewart Stant, a former director of the Maui Department of Environmental Management, pleaded guilty in September, as did Choy.

It’s unclear if Savella, who was a supervising maintenance mechanic until he retired in November 2020, will be the last Maui County employee to face criminal charges as part of the bribery scheme.

“I don’t know that we can identify anything as a final case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson said. “Our investigations are continuing on a number of fronts.”

H2O Process Systems was awarded nearly $20 million in work from Maui County during the time Choy was bribing employees. As a maintenance mechanic supervisor, Savella would have been able to identify parts that needed to be replaced and would have provided contract expertise on the sole source work being awarded.

Wilfredo Tamayo Savella pleaded guilty Monday to accepting bribes from Milton Choy in order to steer lucrative contracts to his wastewater company. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2022

In the plea agreement, prosecutors write that Savella “played a minor role” in the bribery scheme compared to Choy and Stant.

Savella was the point of contact for no fewer than 30 of the more than 50 sole source contracts to went to H2O Process Systems since 2013.

“Did you understand … that you would be paid a reward to help Mr. Choy get these contracts?” U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi asked Savella.

“Yes, your honor,” Savella replied.

Kobayashi asked Savella to describe what he did in his own words.

“I accepted bribes from H2O Process to be able to do business with the County of Maui,” Savella said.

Prosecutors allege that Savella was paid about $40,000 worth of bribes to help steer lucrative contracts to H2O Process Systems.

Choy paid Savella in checks and direct deposits to his American Savings Bank account, according to court documents. Prosecutors found more than $40,000 worth of those payments to Savella. Choy also paid for a first-class ticket to Las Vegas for Savella in 2013 that cost more than $1,900.

A photograph of the county building in Wailuku.
Savella played a minor role in the bribery scheme, prosecutors said. It’s unclear if more public officials could face charges. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

One day in August 2017, Savella texted Choy his bank account information including his routing number. The same day, Choy deposited more than $25,000 into his bank account.

A day later, Savella signed off on a sole source procurement for parts for a dewatering system. The contract for that procurement was worth more than $280,000.

In another instance in September 2017, Choy deposited $5,000 into another of Savella’s bank accounts after receiving his account information. About a week later, Savella oversaw the award of a $117,000 contract to Choy’s company for two Polymax Dynablend systems.

The most recent sole source award to H2O Process Systems that Savella oversaw was in 2020, when Maui paid the company more than $75,000 for new chopper pumps at the Kahului Wastewater Reclamation Facility.

Savella is a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines. Kobayashi said he may lose the right to vote, own a firearm or hold public office after pleading guilty. His sentencing was scheduled for April 20.

Savella’s attorney, Victor Bakke, said that Savella did not solicit bribes but did take those that Choy offered.

“The problem is Milton Choy came in and just threw money around. My client was a civil servant, no criminal history, no intent to commit any crimes. And then based on the culture that they had in Maui at the time, he was expected to assist,” Bakke said.

Bakke said that although Savella helped to steer contracts to H2O Process Systems, he was not the one actually signing off on the contracts. That job would have gone to Stant, the former environmental management director who pleaded guilty to taking about $2 million worth of bribes. He was Savella’s supervisor, and “there was some pressure to play ball,” Bakke said.

Asked by a reporter if a culture of corruption has become endemic here, Bakke said yes.

“The bribery – it seems to be everywhere in this state,” he said. “This was going on for eight years. From what I’ve seen my client wasn’t the only one to be given this pressure.”

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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