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Former Maui senator and Oʻahu lawmaker accused of taking bribes involving cesspool legislation

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PC: Rep. Ty Culle (left); Senate Majority Leader, Sen. J. Kalani English (right). File photo credit: Michi Moore.

Former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English of Maui and state Rep. Ty Cullen are accused of taking bribes and receiving payment for actions involving cesspool legislation.

The information is contained in two separate information documents filed against each individual in US District Court today. Officials with the US Attorney’s Office-District of Hawaiʻi detailed information contained in the documents during a press briefing held at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

“You have the two hotel rooms… you have the dinner that was paid for, you have the $500 that was provided in cash so that Mr. English could take his family out to dinner,” said US Attorney for the District of Hawaiʻi, Claire Connors. “And then you have the discrete disbursements of $1,000 after Mr. English agreed to introduce the cesspool legislation, then you have the $10,000 after he agreed to kill that legislation, and then you have the $5,000 after that,” she said.

Two felony informations were filed earlier today in federal court and allege that schemes were made to defraud the citizens of the state of Hawaiʻi of honest services by elected officials.

“One of the informations charges Former State Senator J. Kalani English with engaging in a scheme to defraud the citizens of the state of Hawaiʻi by accepting financial gifts, bribes, in exchange for taking official action that would directly benefit the person providing him those financial gifts, cash, disbursements,” said Connors.

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In the case of English’s information, “You can see from what is alleged therein that the relationship between an individual identified as ‘Person A’ and Mr. English at the time he was serving as state senator began at least by 2015. In addition the information alleges that specifically in 2019, Mr. English received from Person A different financial gifts in the form of hotel rooms in Las Vegas, in the form of meals that were provided by Person A. And then when the Legislative session in 2020 kicked off, you can also see that in exchange for an agreement by Mr. English to support legislation that was requested by Person A, Mr. English also accepted financial disbursements.”

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“In one case, Person A asked that Mr. English introduce legislation involving cesspools. He agreed to do so, and received $1,000 from Person A. In another instance as the legislative session continued in 2020, Person A then asked Sen. English at the time to kill that legislative action–to kill the bills related to these cesspool subject matter areas, and Mr. English agreed to do so, and he received $10,000 from Person A to do so. He subsequently received another $5,000 from Person A at the end of the legislative session,” said US Attorney Connors.

She continued to cite allegations contained in the document saying, “Mr. English did not report what he received from Person A on his gift disclosure forms,” which are used each year by public officials to disclose what they receive in the form of financial gifts.

“When Mr. English filed that gift disclosure form, he did so using the wires, which is how the federal government has jurisdiction in this case,” said Connors. “He used the interstate form of commerce by submitting that gift disclosure form over the internet. And in failing to make that disclosure, he did not advise the people of this state what financial interests he had when he was making legislative decisions, when he was taking official action.”

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Richard H.S. Sing, attorney for J. Kalani English issued a statement this afternoon following the press briefing saying:

“Kalani is extremely remorseful and deeply sorry for his actions. 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.”

In a second information Representative Representative Ty J. K. Cullen (Royal Kunia, Village Park, Waipahu, Makakilo, West Loch) is accused of a similar scheme, “to defraud the citizens of the state of Hawaiʻi of his honest services as an elected official,” said Connors.

“You can see that as charged in the information, Person A and Rep. Cullen had a relationship dating at least as far back as 2014. They were both in New Orleans for a conference. At that time, Person A provided Rep. Cullen with casino chips, and those were cashed out. They were of a value greater than $22,000,” Connors said during the afternoon news briefing.

“You can also see from the information that in 2019, Rep. Cullen and Person A also engaged in discussions about cesspools. The representative agreed to support, introduce legislation, take official action in exchange for money he received from Person A, knowing that it was going to directly benefit Person A’s business,” said Connors.

She noted that Rep. Cullen allegedly received seven separate disbursements of cash from Person A.

Similar to former State Sen. English, Rep. Cullen did not disclose the receipt of this money on his gift disclosure form, and filed the document using the wires, giving the federal government jurisdiction to charge what is set forth in both informations–honest services fraud, using the wires.

“Both of those informations filed today reflect the priority of the law enforcement community here in Hawaiʻi, to investigate and to prosecute corrupt practices by our state public and elected officials. It is priority of the department across the country and it is something that this office in conjunction with our federal counterparts are committed to ensuring happen, and the public can expect that much,” said Connors.

Special Agent In Charge Steve Merrill of the FBI Honolulu Office also spoke at the press briefing saying, “The FBI makes it a priority to protect everyone in the state of Hawaiʻi, including protecting the public’s trust through corruption investigations. Today, through our actions, we are announcing clearly that corruption poses a fundamental threat to our way of life, and will not be tolerated. Thanks to the taxpayers of Hawaiʻi, your intolerance of corrupt officials fuels the fire of our efforts to protect taxpayers money.”

Today’s announcement is the product of disciplined hard work behind the scenes by talented investigative teams serving the taxpayers,” said SA Merrill. “Mr. English and Mr. Cullen allegedly used their positions of trust to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers through bribery.”

Neither former Sen. English or Rep. Cullen were arrested, and neither are currently in custody. These were felony information documents. “What will be forthcoming will be initial appearances or arraignments, and then they will enter a plea,” said Connors.

When asked if the homes or offices of English or Cullen were searched in the investigation, authorities would not comment on investigative techniques.

Authorities said that while a Person A was identified in both information documents, they could not confirm if it was the same individual. “One of the common elements is the cesspool legislation… we did put in some details there about the actual bill that state Sen. English at the time introduced during the 2020 session, and then described companion House Bills,” said Connors.

“The important part of the information is there was a request by Person A who had already provided financial gifts to both Sen. English and Rep. Cullen to kill that legislation, and in the case of Sen. English at the time, he agreed to do so, and then he received $10,000 for it from Person A,” said Connors.

Assistant US Attorneys Ken Sorenson said sentencing guideline calculations can vary greatly. “At this time, I think it’s safe to stick with the statutes–the statutory violations that we have of record, and not speculate on what the sentence may or may not be based on what the sentencing guidelines provide.”

Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 13.43 is wire fraud, and section 13.46 is the provision that makes honest services fraud chargeable. Connors said that the possible penalties under those statutes, in terms of the upper end of potential sentencing is a statutory maximum of 20 years. Justice officials say each could also face a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

“What you can see from the information is what Person A’s business was; and you could see that the type of legislation that was introduced… would have directly benefited the business interests of Person A. It’s also set forth I think the types of contracts that would have been obtained and those are financial benefits… that were not disclosed by either legislator,” said Connors.

An information is merely an allegation and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

In response to the U.S. Attorney’s allegations, Speaker Scott K. Saiki stated:

“The allegations against former Senator Kalani English and Representative Ty Cullen are very serious and these actions violate the public trust. At 1:02 p.m. today, Representative Cullen submitted his resignation from the House of Representatives effective immediately. The Hawaii Democratic Party will now need to begin the process of nominating a replacement for Representative Cullen.”

English retired on May 1, 2021, citing “long-haul” effects of COVID-19. He was representing District 7, which includes Hāna, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi. Officials would not comment on if Sen. English knew or did not know of the allegations at the time.

The legislative leader and lifelong resident of Hāna, Maui, was first elected to the Hawaiʻi State Senate in 2000. Prior to that, he served as a member of the Maui County Council from 1997–2000 and is a graduate of the Kamehameha School, Hawaiʻi Loa College and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Over the course of his legislative career, Senator English is credited with working to secure over $2 billion in funding for the rural communities he represented. He also successfully championed a number of bills (that were signed into law) relating to Hawaiian culture, the environment, transportation and energy.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served more than 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.
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