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Maui legislators react to English’s charges

Legislative leaders say they will earn back public trust

English

“Shocked” and “unaware” was how a couple of Maui County legislators described feeling after learning about federal charges being brought against retired state Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English on Tuesday.

English, 55, of Hana was charged in federal court with allegedly taking more than $18,000 in bribes, including cash to introduce a bill and later “kill” legislation involving cesspools in the 2020 legislative session.

Oahu Rep. Ty Cullen, who resigned Tuesday, was also charged in federal court for accepting thousands of dollars, some in casino chips.

For both legislators, the alleged bribes involved cesspool legislation and were from a business owner. They are both charged with one count of honest services wire fraud, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Sen. Lynn DeCoite, who replaced English in the Senate District 7, said in a news release Wednesday, “Like many, I too was surprised by the allegations and was completely unaware of the events outlined by the Department of Justice. I believe that Kalani’s endorsement of my candidacy to succeed him in the Senate was what based on the productive working relationship that we developed while serving the people of Maui Nui.”

As English prepared for retirement on May 1, 2021, citing issues with long-term COVID, he endorsed DeCoite.

She emerged as one of three nominees from the Maui County Democratic Party’s Senate District 7 selection body, which interviewed potential candidates. Gov. David Ige then selected DeCoite in June 2021. Senate District 7 represents East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai.

DeCoite said: “Let me be clear, we as elected officials need to be held to a higher standard and the allegations brought fourth by the federal government is disheartening and the actions are completely unacceptable by anyone in public office.”

Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger said she was “shocked but not surprised.”

“Cracks are coming in the good ol’ boy network,” the lawmaker said in an email Wednesday. She represents House District 11, which includes Kihei, Wailea and Makena.

Wildberger added that she supports a “zero-tolerance policy that preemptively asks for the resignation of any member that may be implicated in corruption charges.”

“Messaging is crucial and tacit approval has no place at the Legislature,” she said. “It’s time to clean house. Our constituents, the taxpayers, deserve better.”

In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Scott Saiki said he, too, was not aware of the actions of the former lawmakers. He said he learned of Cullen’s involvement when he received Cullen’s resignation letter on Tuesday, but the letter did not provide a reason for his resignation.

“I’m not sure how much worse it could get. This is quid pro quo public corruption. This is really bad,” Saiki said.

He said he doesn’t believe bribery is widespread among lawmakers.

“I was shocked by this report. I just I couldn’t believe it. My colleagues on our caucus today were still in shock,” Saiki said.

In meeting with House Democratic Caucus members Wednesday, Saiki said he will work with them in taking immediate actions, including fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney, mandating and strengthening regular ethics training for House members, continuing to allow media full access to the State Capitol during its temporary closure along with beginning a plan to reopen the State Capitol so that the public can be present.

“All of us in the Hawaii Legislature must take action to rebuild the public’s confidence and trust. And we need to ensure that the legislative process reflects the public interest, and not special interests,” Saiki said.

He added that the Legislature will review Cullen’s voting record and legislation he introduced. The House would release a summary of that review, and was open to an independent third party helping conduct it, Saiki said.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “The events that unfolded yesterday were surprising and unfortunate and casts a pall over the Legislature and the work that we are trying to accomplish for the people of Hawaii. We must rededicate ourselves and work to rebuild the public’s trust in government.”

Federal prosecutors on Tuesday alleged the lawmakers took bribes in exchange for influencing legislation that would benefit a company involved in publicly financed cesspool conversion projects.

English received more than $18,000 worth of bribes, including envelopes of cash and Las Vegas hotel rooms, prosecutors said. Cullen received casino chips and four cash payments totaling $23,000, they said.

Attorneys for both men said they would take responsibility for their actions and plead guilty next week.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii has supported the elimination of cesspools and its Director Wayne Tanaka said Wednesday that he is “very disappointed to hear about the indictments.”

“While we wait for the legal system to address the allegations and admissions, it is important to remember that those who make the laws that we are all expected to follow have a heightened duty to comply with them as well, especially when it comes to the lawmaking process,” Tanaka said. “Cesspools that pollute our streams and coastlines are a critical issue that must be addressed, but not at the expense of the public’s trust in the integrity of our legislature and our government as a whole.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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