Prosecutors: 2 Hawaii lawmakers took bribes to steer bills

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FILE - Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English speaks to reporters on opening day of the state Legislature at the state Capitol in Honolulu, Jan. 16, 2019. Former Hawaii state Sen. English took bribes, including at least $15,000 cash and Las Vegas hotel rooms in exchange for shaping cesspool legislation that would benefit a business owner, according to federal allegations filed in court on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File)

HONOLULU – A Hawaii 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 legislation that would benefit a company involved in publicly financed cesspool conversion projects, according to federal allegations filed in court.

Former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English tried unsuccessfully to hide an envelope with a $5,000 bribe when FBI agents stopped his vehicle in January 2021 after a meeting with a business owner who benefited from the cesspool legislation, according to a charging document filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu on Tuesday.

In all, English received more than $18,000 in bribes, prosecutors said, including Las Vegas hotel rooms and cash for a crab dinner for friends and family visiting from Tahiti.

English, 54, announced his retirement in May 2021, saying he was suffering from long-term effects of COVID-19. The Democrat represented east Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

“Kalani is extremely remorseful and deeply sorry for his actions,” his attorney, Richard Sing, said in a statement. “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.”

A spokesperson for the state Senate, Jacob Aki, said the Senate was “unaware of these allegations." He declined further comment.

A charging document against state Rep. Ty Cullen, 41, said bribes he received included casino chips and four cash payments totaling $23,000.

Cullen's attorney, Birney Bervar, said Wednesday that his client accepts full responsibility for his actions and is expected to plead guilty next week.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said Cullen submitted his resignation Tuesday. Saiki said the Hawaii Democratic Party will now need to begin the process of nominating a replacement for Cullen.

Cullen represented Waipahu and West Loch on Oahu.

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 December 2019, the business owner, identified in both court documents as “Person A,” asked Cullen if they needed any “help,” and Cullen said he was “paying plenty debt." Cullen's charging document said he received an envelope with $5,000 the following month.

Around the same time, English received the same amount for his legislative assistance and told Person A, “I can definitely use that right now. All the mortgages have become due,” according to his charging document.

Person A also later paid them to help kill the bills, the court documents said.

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.