Former Dem lawmaker in Hawaii gets two years in prison for accepting bribes in cesspool conversion scheme

April 8, 2023
Ben Marquis

A former Democratic state legislator from Hawaii, Rep. Ty Cullen (D), pleaded guilty to a federal bribery scheme last year and was just sentenced to two years in prison, according to the Daily Wire.

The scheme involved Cullen accepting bribes in the form of cash and gambling chips from a prominent local businessman in exchange for favorable action on cesspool conversion legislation that would financially benefit the businessman's company.

Already serving time in federal prison on a 40-month sentence for his role in that same scheme is former Democratic Hawaii Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, who reportedly accepted around $18,000 in bribes from the same businessman to similarly influence cesspool conversion legislation.

Bribery scandal mars publicly-financed cesspool conversion plan

The Associated Press reported that cesspools, which are individual pits that collect raw sewage and wastewater from homes and businesses not tied into sewage systems, are a big problem on the Hawaiian islands, as the contamination can seep into and pollute groundwater and the ocean.

New cesspool pits were banned in 2016 and legislation has been considered to use taxpayer funding to finance efforts at converting the estimated 83,000-plus existing cesspools into more secure septic tanks and to expand city and county sewage systems.

Honolulu businessman Milton Choy, who owns a wastewater management service company that stood to financially benefit from the cesspool conversion plans, pleaded guilty last year to bribing a Maui County official and faces up to 10 years in prison in an arrangement that will shield him from being charged for bribing other officials and lawmakers.

Cooperation results in reduced sentence

As for Cullen, the AP reported that he was sentenced on Thursday to two years in prison plus a $25,000 fine, the lowest sentence recommended by prosecutors but not as low as the 15 months that Cullen's attorney had requested.

"This was a grievous breach of public trust on your part. It appears to have been motivated by greed, and it stretched out over a number of years," U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway told Cullen during the sentencing hearing. "I am very concerned that this was not a momentary lapse of judgment."

Cullen said in a statement, "I want to say I’m sorry to my family who stayed by me, to my friends, to my constituents, my community, and the people of Hawaii," and added, "I will continue to work to make my wrongs right. And ensure that this never happens again."

According to local media outlet KHON2, Cullen's sentence was on the short end due to his reported cooperation with prosecutors and investigators, which has led some observers to believe that additional lawmakers who've been implicated in the bribery scheme and could soon face criminal charges of their own.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Sorenson acknowledged during the sentencing hearing, "We did have substantial cooperation from Mr. Cullen which resulted in assisting an investigation that we’re doing."

Prison time for former Democratic leader, businessman at center of scheme

Meanwhile, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader English is already serving a 40-month prison sentence he received along with a $100,000 fine after he pled guilty to honest services wire fraud in the cesspool conversion bribery scheme, according to a July 2022 U.S. News report.

In calling for a three-and-a-half-year sentence for English, who allegedly did not cooperate with investigators, prosecutors said he "peddled the power and influence of his position as a Hawaii State Senator and Majority Leader to enrich himself and betray the trust bestowed upon him by those he was elected to serve."

The AP noted that businessman Choy is expected to face sentencing for his part in the cesspool conversion bribery scheme in May.

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