Here’s why we think the public needs to know as much about what’s going on as possible — even if we can’t tell you everything.
The federal investigation into bribery and corruption at the Hawaii Legislature has moved beyond the two lawmakers who were convicted last year of taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to kill legislation and the Honolulu businessman who paid them.
Federal prosecutors are looking at a much deeper problem within the State Capitol, including other lawmakers who appear to be willing to take money to sway legislation and other individuals who have no hesitation to pay them to do it.
Hawaii’s political establishment was pretty well shaken up last year when the feds arrested former Sen. J. Kalani English, then-Rep. Ty Cullen and Milton Choy, the owner of a wastewater disposal company, in a case that involved cash bribes that exchanged hands in bathrooms, cars and offices along with a sizable stash of poker chips and other items of value. The three soon pleaded guilty and English and Cullen have been sentenced, English to more than three years in federal prison, Cullen to two years. Choy, who it turned out had been cooperating with the government for years, is still awaiting sentencing.
The blatant abuse of power was so shocking that House leadership created a special commission that came up with numerous reform proposals, some of which passed the just-ended legislative session.
Now, a document filed in a case involving Cullen provides more insight into where the feds are going with the investigation. It’s part of their explanation about why they supported a more lenient sentence for Cullen.
Here’s where what should be a straightforward news story based on a public court record takes a journalistic twist we’ve spent the last couple of days thinking through.
After meeting with federal prosecutors, we’ve decided not to disclose most of the details the court filing contains. They made a pretty good case as to why revealing specifics would significantly harm their investigation and perhaps even put Cullen at risk of physical harm.
It’s a weird position for us to take. But we think it’s the right one, at least at this moment in time.
Corruption, conspiracy and abuse of public office is all too common in Hawaii — you don’t have to look further than the convictions of the former Honolulu police chief and his deputy prosecutor wife. Or the recent convictions of union officials and Honolulu planning department staff. Even the trials of top city officials and the elected city prosecutor that are still playing out suggest we should let the federal investigations run their course.
The story of how we got the document is important here, too.
In the criminal case against Cullen, prosecutors in March filed a “motion for downward departure” that explained the reasons they supported leniency. The document, which is filed when prosecutors decide to depart from sentencing guidelines, was sealed.
The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which has been filing court actions to unseal many records in many cases, asked the federal court to unseal the document while noting that if the document contained details that would interfere with an ongoing investigation, redacting those parts of the document — not withholding it altogether — was the appropriate thing to do.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office to file an answer to the law center’s motion that included an exhibit providing more detail as to what could be made public and what should be kept secret — and to explain why.
“This court recognizes the Government’s concern that, in addressing the motion to unseal, it not reveal the very information it is attempting to keep sealed,” Mollway wrote. “Nevertheless, the reasons for redactions do not themselves appear to reveal that very information.”
The government did file the partially redacted exhibit, just as Mollway ordered. But prosecutors failed to properly redact the document, a mistake that is all too common when trying to use computer programs to black out a PDF document. If it’s not done right, you can copy and paste the redacted document into a Word doc and the blacked-out text appears.
Reporters routinely run redacted records through this process. And that’s what we did here. So now we had some detailed information about what is arguably the most important public corruption investigation in Hawaii.
You won’t be surprised to hear that when federal prosecutors found out we had a clean copy of the document with its detailed information about Cullen’s cooperation, they were not happy. They quickly replaced the flawed exhibit with one that was done right, and asked us to destroy our copy.
We made it clear that wasn’t going to happen and that we were prepared to publish a story laying out what was in the record. But we did take their concerns seriously and agreed to meet for an off-the-record discussion.
We came away believing that they were seriously concerned about what publication would do to the integrity of their investigation, a case they had spent years building.
What we can tell you is that the document shows the federal investigation is very much alive. Cullen provided information regarding bribes and other financial benefits he’d accepted but also incidents he knew about involving other legislators.
“The defendant has provided substantial information concerning other possible acts of public corruption by public officials in Hawaii, and has agreed to continue his cooperation as our investigation continues,” the document concludes. “In sum, the defendant’s cooperation has resulted in a chargeable … offense, and assisted in creating helpful leverage against other subjects as our covert investigation continues.”
Other news organizations might have made a different decision. Corruption in government — especially when it involves legislators who are willing to sell their votes for cash to special interests who have no qualms offering it — is of significant public interest and we should be doing everything we can to expose it.
But in the end, Civil Beat is very much a local news organization. We are part of this unique island community. Sometimes that means we need to stop and consider whether we have a different kind of responsibility, too. We think that’s the right call, at least while we see how the federal investigation plays out.
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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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.