Ex-Hawaii lawmakers plead guilty to taking bribes in office

  • Associated Press Former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English pleaded guilty Tuesday to taking bribes in exchange for shaping legislation while in office, forfeiting about $15,000, representing the amount of cash received.

HONOLULU — Two former Hawaii lawmakers accused of taking bribes in exchange for shaping legislation while in office pleaded guilty Tuesday.

Ty Cullen resigned from the state House of Representatives last week shortly before federal prosecutors announced charges against him and former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English.


English retired in May, saying he was suffering from long-term effects of COVID-19. He told U.S. Judge Susan Oki Mollway he’s still receiving long-term COVID-19 treatments twice a week.

As part of agreements to plead guilty to honest services wire fraud, English agreed to forfeit about $15,000 and Cullen agreed to forfeit $23,000, representing the amounts of cash they received.

They are scheduled to be sentenced on July 5. They each face up to 20 years in prison, but the sentences they receive will depend on various factors, including reductions for taking responsibility by pleading guilty early.

The Democrats took the bribes in exchange for shaping legislation that would benefit a company involved in publicly financed cesspool conversion projects, according to court documents.

English, who represented east Maui, Molokai and Lanai, told Mollway he believed the legislation was beneficial to the people of Hawaii and the business owner.

“It helped two sides,” he said via video from Hana on Maui.

English was a member of the Cesspool Conversion Working Group, which was charged with developing a plan for converting cesspools to more environmentally responsible waste treatment systems or to connect them to sewer systems by 2050.

English complied with the business owner’s request for a copy of the draft report, according to English’s plea agreement.

The business owner told English, “if there’s something I can do for you Kalani, you let me know,” according to the plea agreement, and added, “There’s gonna be things that I have to ask as well, and I appreciate you, as my brother and friend … there’s things that you cannot do, no problem … there’s things that I cannot do, no problem. But, together we find a way.”

In addition to envelopes of cash, English received bribes including Las Vegas hotel rooms, prosecutors said.

Cullen, while representing communities including Waipahu and West Loch on Oahu, also received New Orleans casino chips as bribes from the business owner while they both attended a wastewater conference, according to court documents.

Using chips from the business owner and wagers made for him by the business owner, Cullen cashed out more than $22,000 worth of chips while in New Orleans, according to his plea agreement.

As a favor to the business owner, Cullen introduced a bill for the development of a system to collect and treat wastewater from existing sewage systems, the court document said. Passage of the bill resulted in a subcontract being issued to the company, according to the plea agreement.

Cullen and English also received cash to later kill the cesspool-related bills.

“I didn’t disclose the payments on my gift disclosure forms,” Cullen told the judge.

The business owner is identified only as “Person A” in court documents.

A statement Tuesday from the state Senate condemned the former lawmakers’ actions.

“Their actions are not reflective of the values and standards that we strive to uphold as public officials,” the statement said. “The Senate will continue to take the necessary actions to increase transparency, combat corruption and expand ethics training to all members and staff.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki said last week the House had started a review of Cullen’s votes and legislation he had introduced. The House would release a summary of that review, and was open to an independent third party helping conduct it, he said.

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