In the face of painful permitting delays, Bill Wong said he gave in to the pressure to “pay to play.”

An architect who gave tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to workers at the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting was sentenced on Thursday to one year and a day in prison and a $5,000 fine.

William Wong, 73, admitted he gave money to county workers to expedite the approval of his construction projects. The federal probe also ensnared five former permitting workers who were sentenced to prison time ranging from 18 months to five years. Two others are awaiting sentencing.

William Bill Will Wong architect DPP Bill Harrison attorney lawyer federal courthouse attorney Bill Harrison Prince Kuhio Federal Building United States District Court District of Hawaii
William “Bill” Wong, at left, and his attorney Bill Harrison appeared in federal court on Thursday for Wong’s sentencing. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In an apologetic statement to the court, Wong said he is a “humble and broken man” who has taken responsibility for his crimes. Wong said he had failed himself and gone against God’s wishes.

“I humbly ask you for forgiveness and promise I will, for the rest of my life, try to atone for my sins,” he told the judge.

A Chinese immigrant, Wong has otherwise lived a law-abiding life. But working with Honolulu’s most beleaguered department pushed him over the edge, his lawyers wrote in a sentencing memo.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Nolan acknowledged that Wong was hardly a career criminal but emphasized that bribery is a “serious crime” that harms the public’s faith in its institutions.

“It leaves the citizens feeling they can’t trust their government,” Nolan said in court. “When he saw corruption impacting his clients and others who were seeking applications, he chose to engage in significant bribery. He could’ve picked up the phone and called the FBI.”

Wong gave bribes in the face of mounting permitting delays that were causing desperation throughout the community, his lawyers wrote in their memo. People trying to sell their property were forced to endure additional months of mortgage payments while they waited for permits, his lawyers noted. New homeowners had to pay mortgages on unconstructed homes.

Small businesses that get paid when a permit is issued – from architects to contractors – were on standby as their applications languished. Some companies even had to lay off employees due to the wait time, causing a loss of clients, Wong’s team said.

Meanwhile, they said, DPP was struggling with understaffing and was ill-equipped to handle the mountain of permit applications. Many of the problems that Wong said drove him to bribery still exist. DPP Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna has said she is working to reform the troubled office.

Building plans await pickup by applicants at the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP)
The Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting has been bogged down by delays for years. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

As the CEO of Asia Pacific Architectural Consultants, Wong tried to work with the backlogged department to get his projects through the queue. He even took a test to become a third-party reviewer to help ease the burden on DPP and move his projects along, his lawyers said.

The third-party review system helped for a time, but ultimately, permits stalled again, Wong’s lawyers said. At the time, all electronically submitted plans had to go through a single person, his sentencing memo said.

Clients became frustrated as the permitting process dragged on for months. Wong’s obligation to them and concern about sustaining his business led him to give in to the pressure to “pay to play,” his lawyers wrote.

“I chose to deviate from my standards of integrity, and by doing so, I also gave in to the pressure that’s around me,” Wong said in court. “I saw how my clients were suffering from the corruption system and instead of walking a straight line, I compromised my integrity and tried to help them, but instead, I created another part of the problem.”

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney Clare Connors’ office said Wong deserved a lesser sentence than the minimum of 30 months that guidelines suggest. Wong had admitted to his participation in the scheme and helped investigators to secure guilty pleas against the DPP employees, they noted.

Nolan, the prosecutor, said Wong was particularly instrumental in the case against Wayne Inouye, the former chief building inspector who was sentenced to five years in prison.

Nolan recommended a sentence of 15 months behind bars and a $10,000 fine.

Wong’s attorney and friend Bill Harrison asked the court for home confinement instead of prison. Wong was only trying to keep his business going while DPP was in “shambles,” he said.

Harrison added Wong’s son is trying to keep the family business afloat but has been “blackballed” by DPP because of his father’s case.

In a statement on Thursday, Takeuchi Apuna denied that her department is retaliating against Wong by holding up permit applications filed by his son. If there are examples of unfair treatment, she urged the family to provide them to department leadership so they can be investigated.

From the bench, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Derrick Watson said it was difficult to determine a punishment for Wong. The court was inundated with dozens of letters from Wong’s loved ones and colleagues who described him as an honorable and generous family man who had made a momentary lapse.

The judge said he had never seen so many heartfelt letters of support for a criminal defendant, and he appeared to be impacted by them.

“When that kind of individual faces a sentencing like this — not that this proceeding is ever a joy — but it is certainly no joy today,” Watson said.

Chief Judge Derrick Watson (US District Court/2023)
Chief Judge Derrick Watson indicated the many letters of support for Wong made an impression on him. (US District Court/2023)

Watson said corruption can’t be taken lightly. This case laid bare the “warts of DPP,” he said.

“It exposed for all to see what many had only suspected up to that point,” the judge said. “Pay-to-play schemes cannot be tolerated … For that reason, I cannot agree to a sentence that doesn’t include a term of incarceration.”

The judge noted that Wong personally benefitted from the bribery – not only by his projects moving faster but also by developing a reputation as a permit applicant whose projects got quickly approved. That must have boosted business, the judge said.

“But you’ve led otherwise an exemplary life,” Watson said. “Seventy-three years. Are you defined by this one transgression? I hope you don’t let it.” 

The 12-month plus one day sentence will allow Wong to get a good time credit of up to 54 days, according to retired federal public defender Ali Silvert. That’s because sentences of more than a year qualify for reduced sentences for good behavior.

Wong has gotten the shortest prison sentence of anyone charged so far in the scandal. Watson said there is a key difference between him and his co-defendants, who all worked for DPP.

They held positions of public trust that you did not,” he said.

In her statement, DPP Director Takeuchi Apuna said her office respects the sentencing decision.

The department “continues to work aggressively to rebuild integrity from within DPP by enforcing against bad actors and providing fair and honest services to the people of Oahu,” she said, “and we cannot allow those efforts to be undermined by anyone seeking to circumvent the system for personal gain.”

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