The U.S. Justice Department is refusing to release case files on privacy grounds.

Honolulu Civil Beat has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation over the federal agency’s refusal to release records involving two Hawaii lawmakers who are in prison for accepting bribes.

Former Rep. Ty Cullen and former Sen. J. Kalani English were caught up in an FBI sting that played out over the past couple years involving a Honolulu businessman, Milton Choy, who gave the lawmakers tens of thousand of dollars in cash, casino chips and other items of value in exchange for their help with legislation that would benefit his business.

Choy had been cooperating with the FBI and working as an informant for a number of years before Cullen and English were arrested in 2022 and the case was made public. He also was caught giving bribes to Maui County environmental officials, separate cases that have been in the news the last year or so.

Earlier this year, following the arrests, Civil Beat requested the FBI’s investigation reports on the two cases, material that would help the public understand the events leading up to the arrests, how their lawmakers betrayed the public trust and how federal investigators conducted the investigation.

Former lawmakers J. Kalani English, left, and Ty Cullen have been convicted and sentenced for accepting large sums of money to influence legislation. (Civil Beat/2022)

The FBI denied the request. Civil Beat appealed to the Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department and the appeal was also denied. The information policy office said “privacy exemptions justified categorical denial of any access to the requested records.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has since made it clear that Cullen cooperated with investigators after his arrest and that his help has led to further investigation. Civil Beat is only seeking records that cover the investigation into Cullen and English that ended with their arrests.

The lawsuit, filed last week by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest on behalf of Civil Beat, contends much of the information in the investigation reports is public record under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

But the FBI is withholding everything, the lawsuit says.

According to the complaint, Cullen, a veteran Oahu lawmaker who was a member of the House Finance Committee as well as two other committees dealing with environmental issues, became close with Choy, the businessman who owned companies that offered wastewater-related services, H2O Process Systems and Central Pacific Controls.

Before the 2015 session Choy and Cullen attended a wastewater conference in New Orleans, where Choy gave Cullen casino chips and other benefits, “resulting in Cullen walking away with more than $22,000 in cash,” the complaint says.

During the 2015 session, as a direct favor to Choy, Cullen introduced a bill that provided funding for a study relating to wastewater technology. It passed all the committees Cullen served on including a conference committee he co-chaired.

The bill secured $8.6 million for the study and one of Choy’s companies ultimately got a contract as part of it.

Choy began cooperating with the FBI before the 2020 legislative session, the lawsuit says, and he began giving Cullen more cash for his favorable actions on legislation.

The lawsuit says Cullen accepted bribes for his legislative support from at least September 2014 through October 2021.

He resigned from his House seat in February 2022 when his arrest was made public.

English’s willingness to accept bribes from Choy dates back to at least November 2014, continuing through January 2021, the lawsuit says.

The complaint details one incident in June 2019 when Choy, by then working with the FBI, gave English cash and paid for two hotel room in Las Vegas for the senator while English attended a concert, the complaint says.

In exchange, English provided Choy with a draft report from a cesspool conversion working group that English was a member of.

More bribes followed, the lawsuit says, including a payment of $10,000 for English to kill an appropriation that would have paid for a pilot project to test cesspool conversion technologies.

In January 2021, shortly after he accepted $5,000 in cash for general legislative assistance, the FBI arrested English but kept the arrest under wraps.

English, a longtime Maui lawmaker, retired from the Senate in May 2021, publicly blaming continuing medical issues with Covid-19 as the reason he was stepping down.

The arrest came to light in February 2022, the same time as Cullen’s arrest, when they were both charged with federal crimes relating to public corruption.

In July 2022, a federal judge sentenced English to 40 months in prison and a $100,000 fine.

More recently, in April, Cullen was sentenced to 24 months in prison and a $25,000 fine. His lighter sentence was the result of his cooperation, federal prosecutors have said.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also a co-founder of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.

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