Two former Hawaii state lawmakers today admitted to accepting bribes from a wastewater executive in exchange for introducing and managing legislation to benefit the executive’s efforts to make money off of cesspool conversions and other wastewater policy.
In separate video hearings in federal court, former state Senate Majority leader J. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty J.K. Cullen both acknowledged their guilt in the scandal that has rocked the state Capitol.
Cullen, the former vice-chairman of the state House Committee on Finance, entered a plea of guilty before Senior U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway to one felony count of honest services wire fraud for failing to report the alleged bribes in his electronic legislative gift disclosure report. He agreed to pay $23,000 in a money judgment based off the bribes he took.
He will also pay a $100 special assessment.
Between September 2014 and Oct. 8, 2021, Cullen allegedly “secretly used his official position to enrich himself by accepting bribes from Person A in exchange for Cullen’s promise of providing, in his official capacity as a member of the State House, legislative support that would be beneficial to Person A’s company,” according to the federal charges. Person A is Milton J. Choy, owner of H20 Process Systems and Fluid Technologies.
One of the instances described by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson detailed how Cullen took $5,000 in cash in a restaurant bathroom during a meeting about an upcoming legislative session.
Dressed in a dark suit, blue shirt and a blue tie, Cullen appeared via Zoom with his attorney, Birney B. Bervar. He did not speak while Sorenson read through the facts in the case. However he answered “yes, your honor,” as Oki Mollway stated the allegations of accepting bribes in return for legislative favors, and not reporting the bribes as gifts.
Cullen signed his plea agreement Feb. 10.
Cullen will be sentenced July 5. He is free on an unsecured $50,000 bond.
Cullen’s plea followed the guilty plea of English, a Maui Democrat, earlier this morning.
English and Cullen sought to influence legislation to help Choy’s businesses benefit financially from Act 125, which was approved by state lawmakers in 2017 and requires the conversion of all cesspools in Hawaii by 2050.
During the period of time when the pair of former lawmakers allegedly accepted bribes, English was Democratic majority leader, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Technology and a member of the Senate Committees on Ways and Means and Transportation.
In addition to the Finance Committee, Cullen also served on the House Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee and the Government Reform Committee.
English retired in April citing the effects of long haul COVID-19 and he said in court today that he still receives twice-weekly treatments for the illness. Cullen resigned Feb. 8 just before the charges became public.
English entered a guilty plea before Oki Mollway, acknowledging that he was paid to do to help Choy.
Cullen and English did not list the money and gifts they received in their official gift disclosure form, according to the felony information outlining the charges against them.
English signed his plea agreement Feb. 11. He is free on an unsecured $50,000 bond.
He represented Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe, while Cullen, also a Democrat, was elected to serve the people of Royal Kunia, Waipahu and Makakilo.
English and Cullen face up to 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to a single count of honest services wire fraud
As part of a plea arrangement with the U.S. Department of Justice, English must pay a money judgment of $15,305 for taking envelopes with cash, dinners for guests from Tahiti and Las Vegas hotel rooms from Choy.
English was also charged a $100 special assessment.
English appeared via Zoom, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie.
Like Cullen after him, English admitted accepting bribes in return for favors and not disclosing them as Oki Mollway laid out the prosecution’s allegations.
When she asked him for his plea, English responded, “guilty, your honor.”
He will be sentenced July 5.
The federal public corruption investigation involving state and county lawmakers focuses on allegations dating to at least 2014. It is not clear from the plea agreements if English or Cullen provided evidence to DOJ about other illegal activity.
Choy helped the Justice Department in bringing charges against English and Cullen.
English and Cullen accepted cash, Las Vegas hotel rooms, dinners for friends from Tahiti, and playing chips from a casino in New Orleans in exchange for supporting and killing bills and providing insider information to benefit Choy’s businesses between 2014 and 2021.
Current members of the state House and Senate agreed to give campaign donations made by Choy to the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission or a nonprofit organization supporting criminal justice.