Former Rep. Ty Cullen’s sentence was reduced for providing assistance to the federal government in an ongoing investigation involving public corruption.

Former Rep. Ty Cullen was sentenced to two years in federal prison on Thursday for taking cash bribes of more than $25,000 as well as payments in the form of poker chips totaling $22,000 between 2015 and 2021 as part of a scheme to influence legislation involving wastewater and cesspools.

Cullen’s sentence is substantially less than the 40-month sentence handed down to former Sen. J. Kalani English, who also took bribes from businessman Milton Choy. The disparity is due in large part to the assistance Cullen provided to the federal government as part of an ongoing investigation into public corruption in Hawaii.

A sentencing report to the court recommended a sentence of 37 to 46 months. But federal prosecutors asked for a lighter sentence of between 24 to 30 months. Cullen’s attorney asked for a sentence of 15 months.

Former Rep. Ty Cullen was sentenced to two years in federal prison. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway ordered Cullen to surrender at 10 a.m. on May 18. Cullen requested that he serve his prison sentence at federal facilities in either Yankton, South Dakota, or Montgomery, Alabama, for the vocational programs those facilities provide.

Cullen was also ordered to pay a $25,000 fine on top of a $23,000 forfeiture he handed to the court Thursday morning to pay for the amount of bribes he took. After being released from prison, Cullen will spend three years under supervised release.

In addition to Cullen and English, the federal investigation into bribes Choy paid to public officials has also ensnared two former wastewater officials on Maui. All the defendants have so far pleaded guilty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson declined to discuss the nature of Cullen’s assistance, but said that “we’re hopeful it will result in more prosecutions.”

Compared to English, the information Cullen provided was “substantial,” Sorenson said. However, he declined to say whether more legislators or public officials could be targets of the federal investigation.

During the hearing, Cullen’s family and friends packed the gallery behind the defense table, where Cullen sat with his attorney Birney Bervar. Last week, Bervar asked the court to impose a 15-month sentence. His filing included dozens of letters from Cullen’s supporters and family members, as well as pictures from Cullen’s volunteer work and a Christmas event last year where Cullen dressed as Santa Claus.

“Mr. Cullen is a good person, he made a very bad mistake,” Bervar told the court.

Cullen became emotional while addressing Mollway. He struggled to speak as he cried while apologizing to his friends and family.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson said Cullen’s assistance went a long way in reducing his sentence. (Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2023)

“What I did should have never happened,” Cullen, 42, said. “I will continue to work to make my wrong right and ensure that this never happens again.”

Sorenson said Cullen was easy to bribe.

“It’s almost as if this is the way things are done, that this is the price of doing business,” he said.

But Sorenson also told the court that he was saddened that “the promising career of a young man who lifted himself up has come to this.”

In the late 1990s, Cullen’s father, Russel P.L. Cullen, was convicted on one count of attempted murder for shooting at a vehicle in the Kukui Plaza parking garage. The incident left one woman dead.

Ty Cullen was 15 years old at the of Russel Cullen’s conviction. His father died three years later.

Sorenson said the information Cullen provided law enforcement was “valuable,” but he did not agree with Bervar’s request to lower the sentence to 15 months. Mollway seemed to agree.

“One of the things that concerns me is that this was not a momentary lapse in judgment on your part,” she said.

But in handing down the two-year sentence and $25,000 fine, she took into consideration Cullen’s assistance to the federal government as well as his own financial situation. His last financial disclosures with the state indicated Cullen still owed student loans.

In a brief statement to reporters after the sentencing hearing, Cullen apologized to the people of Hawaii and said he “wanted to make this wrong right.”

In March, Stewart Stant, the former director of the Maui County’s Department of Environmental Management, received a 10 year prison sentence for taking about $2 million worth of bribes from Choy in exchange for steering nearly $20 million worth of sole source contracts to Choy’s company, H2O Process Systems.

Another former Maui official, Wilfredo Savella, pleaded guilty in December to taking more than $40,000 worth of bribes from Choy to help steer those contracts. Savella is scheduled to be sentenced on April 20.

Choy, who had been working with the feds for years on the bribery cases, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 17. Sorenson said the government would be requesting a downward departure from the U.S. Probation Office’s sentencing guidelines for Choy’s assistance in the investigation, which means Choy could receive a lighter sentence.

Choy faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

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