Wilfredo Savella cooperated with prosecutors, leading to a reduced punishment.

A retired Maui County wastewater maintenance mechanic was sentenced Thursday to 16 months in federal prison and two months of house arrest for his role in a corruption scandal that also put away former state lawmakers Ty Cullen and Kalani English.

Wilfredo Savella, 71, pleaded guilty in December to taking bribes of cash and first-class trips to Las Vegas totaling more than $40,000 from businessman Milton Choy. In exchange, Savella helped direct $19 million in contracts to Choy’s company, H2O Process Systems.

“I would like to ask the pardon of my family,” Savella said in court, turning to his half-dozen family members, some of whom had flown in from Arizona, seated behind him. “I really regret what I did, your honor, and I know that they are going to miss me,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi, handing down the sentence, aimed to balance consideration for Savella’s health issues and his compliance with federal prosecutors with a message of deterrence.

Former Maui County wastewater maintenance mechanic Wilfredo Savella leaves federal court on Thursday afternoon after his sentencing hearing. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“I believe this sentence provides just punishment to you for the harm that you’ve committed to our community,” Kobayashi said. “And equally important, I hope it deters you and others from going down this same harmful path.”

Savella must pay $41,704 to the United States.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson had requested that Savella serve 21 months in prison, a fraction of the maximum 10-year sentence and $250,000 in fines he faced. Because Savella pleaded guilty to the bribery charge, prosecutors did not bring additional charges of wire fraud and money laundering.

“It took me a while to get down to 21 months here, to be honest,” Sorenson told the court. “But I do have feelings about Mr. Savella. I do have appreciation for the way he approached this case with us, and I wanted to demonstrate that.”

The prosecution suggested the smaller punishment because Savella was “immediately cooperative,” providing a statement to investigators and returning from Arizona, Sorenson said.

Savella’s health issues, taking responsibility for his actions and low likelihood of reoffending also contributed to the low sentencing request, Sorenson said.

“We do ask the court to balance all these mitigators against what you talked about — the nature of the offense — which is concerning and involved a serious breach of the public trust,” Sorenson said.

Savella’s lawyer, Victor Bakke, pushed for a combination of prison time and house arrest, arguing that his client’s error was made in poor judgment “as opposed to poor character.”

“He was not the mastermind of this,” Bakke said. “He’s almost a collateral consequence.”

Honolulu attorney Victor Bakke, Savella’s defense attorney, called his client a “collateral consequence,” not the mastermind of the scheme to steer contracts to businessman Milton Choy. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In a motion requesting “a reasonable sentence,” Bakke argued that prison is harder for a first-time offender and that his client is vulnerable and unlikely to reoffend.

Savella’s sentence should be reduced “because as a 71 year old man who is only 5 foot 6 and in poor health,” he would be “exceptionally vulnerable” to abuse in prison, Bakke wrote.

Savella “was involved in a situation that will never occur again,” he said.

In support of the motion, Bakke submitted letters from Savella’s family members testifying about his character.

His daughter-in-law called Savella “an exemplary family man and unbelievably friendly human being.”

His son, Adrian Savella, wrote that since the case began his mother’s well-being has deteriorated, causing his father “immense regret.”

Kobayashi opened the sentencing hearing by harshly condemning graft.

“Public corruption really eats away at the foundation of our government and society. It’s the reason, in other countries, why entire buildings may collapse and kill all of its occupants,” she said. “Greed and looking out for only personal gain by public servants harms everyone.”

Savella must turn himself in to the Federal Bureau of Prisons on June 2.

The judge agreed to Bakke’s recommendation that his client be placed in a prison in Sheridan, Oregon, because of its doctors, or one in Tucson, Arizona, for its proximity to Savella’s family.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson said Savella cooperated with prosecutors and recommended a lighter sentence. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

When the hearing adjourned, Sorenson shook Savella’s hand.

Each sentence is highly individualized, Sorenson said in an interview.

Savella, he said, was “more collaterally involved” than the other men in the corruption scandal.

“They each present such a different scenario,” he said.

Two former lawmakers, J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen, pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to several years in prison for taking bribes from Choy in exchange for killing legislation that Choy opposed.

Another Maui county official, Stewart Stant, a former director of the Maui Department of Environmental Management, pleaded guilty in September, as did Choy.

In February, Stant was sentenced to 10 years in prison for taking $2 million in bribes.

Choy, who had been cooperating with the FBI for years before the charges against the state lawmakers were made public, has not yet been sentenced.

Sorenson would not comment on whether prosecutors were targeting other individuals in the corruption scandal, but he indicated they are not finished.

“The efforts continue,” he said.

Bakke said he was satisfied with the sentence, calling it “reasonable.” A heavier sentence would likely fall to the men who orchestrated the corruption, he said.

“They just took advantage of an old dude,” Bakke said.

Bakke, who said his father-in-law grew up with Savella in the Philippines, would not make his client available for comment.

Outside, Savella, in a blue-gray aloha shirt, gray pants and gray running shoes, walked with his family down the block and out of sight.

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

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