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2 Hawaiʻi lawmakers are accused of taking thousands in bribes to steer legislation

Kalani English Ty Cullen.png
Hawaiʻi State Legislature
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J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen

A Hawaiʻi state senator and a state representative took bribes including envelopes of cash, Las Vegas hotel rooms and New Orleans casino chips in exchange for shaping cesspool legislation, according to federal allegations filed in court Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Justice charged former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, 54, and state Rep. Ty Cullen, 41, with public corruption for accepting bribes that influenced legislative decisions.

Prosecutors say English received hotel rooms and cash in exchange for political favors. He retired in April 2021 after serving more than 20 years, at the time citing lingering effects of Long COVID. He represented east Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi.

Sen. J. Kalani English
Audrey McAvoy/AP
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AP
FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2019, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Sen. J. Kalani English smiles on opening day of the state Legislature at the state Capitol in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File)

In 2019, English was part of the Cesspool Conversion Working Group. Around that time, he met the owner of a wastewater management company, described as “Person A” in court documents.

According to those documents, person A provided English with hotel rooms in Las Vegas in exchange for draft reports from the working group. Person A would then provide draft comments for English to submit.

In 2020, Person A paid English $1,000 to introduce legislation in favor of his business. They changed their mind and later paid English $10,000 to kill the legislation. The senator changed course and allegedly told them, “It’s easy to kill bills.”

English received a total of nearly $19,000 in gifts and benefits.

English also tried unsuccessfully to hide an envelope with a $5,000 bribe when FBI agents stopped his vehicle in January 2021, according to a charging document.

“Kalani is extremely remorseful and deeply sorry for his actions,” his attorney, Richard Sing, said in a statement Tuesday. “He has cooperated fully with the Federal Government and will be taking formal responsibility in the form of a guilty plea to be completed in the coming days.”

Ty Cullen
Hawaiʻi House of Representatives
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Now-former state Rep. Ty Cullen at a Finance Committee meeting.

Prosecutors say Cullen, who has been a representative since 2013, also benefited from a wastewater company official. Cullen first met Person A at a wastewater conference in New Orleans. Cullen accepted casino chips from Person A and eventually cashed out that night with $22,000.

With the guidance of Person A, Cullen introduced a bill in 2015 that would fund a feasibility study and pilot project for wastewater collection and treatment. When the bill was passed, a subcontract was issued to Person A’s company.

According to court documents, Person A also gave Cullen four cash payments totaling $23,000 during a six month period in 2019 and 2020.

House Speaker Rep. Scott Saiki announced that Cullen, who was the vice chair of the House Finance Committee, resigned Tuesday afternoon. He had attended roll call virtually on the House floor an hour earlier.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii will nominate candidates for his position. Cullen represented Waipahu and West Loch on Oʻahu.

It was not clear if Cullen and English received the alleged bribes from the same person. Separate charging documents for each lawmaker said the bribe payer was someone having a business “well positioned to avail itself of publicly financed cesspool conversion projects.”

In a statement, Hawaiʻi Republican Chair Lynn Finnegan said, "As a former Republican elected official, I was shocked and appalled that two prominent Democrat elected officials have been accused by the U.S. Attorney of taking large sums of cash, gifts, and special perks as bribes for years in exchange for preferential legislative treatment. We will be monitoring the investigation closely to understand how widespread this corruption is in our government."

Both men are charged with honest services wire fraud. If convicted, each faces a sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment, and a fine of up to $250,000.

Information document charging J. Kalani English

Information document charging Ty Cullen

Jason Ubay is the managing editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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