Federal prosecutors want former Hawaii lawmaker J. Kalani English to serve a three-and-a-half year sentence for accepting bribes from a wastewater executive to influence wastewater and cesspool legislation.
English pleaded guilty in February and admitted to accepting cash and other paymentstotaling more than $18,000 from Honolulu businessman Milton Choy. English leaked documents related to a wastewater working group to Choy in exchange for cash payments. He also accepted more money to first introduce, and then kill a bill that could have benefitted Choy’s business.
“As the investigation progressed it became astoundingly clear that no matter the legislative ask, the answer from English would almost certainly be ‘yes.’ English’s behavior signaled that it was systemically normal for him to accept, and indeed expect, financial benefits in return for legislative favors,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Sorenson wrote in a sentencing memorandum Friday.
Federal prosecutors plan to ask for a sentence of 42 months and are also seeking a fine of $100,000. The U.S. Probation Office recommended a 37-month sentence for English, who asked the courts this week to lower that sentence to 30 months.
Because he pleaded guilty and cooperated with law enforcement, English could be eligible for a reduced sentence. But it’s up to U.S. District Judge Susan Mollway to decide how long English stays behind bars.
English is set to be sentenced on Tuesday. Another former legislator, Ty Cullen, has also pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Choy. His sentencing has been pushed off until October.
A longtime public official from Maui, he first served on the Maui County Council before being elected to the Legislature in 2000. The former lawmaker represented parts of rural East Maui, Lanai and Molokai in the Senate.
He retired in 2021 several months after being arrested by federal agents.
Between 2019 and 2021, English accepted thousands of dollars in the form of cash payments and other gifts including hotel rooms in Las Vegas from Choy, who at the time was working as an informant for the FBI as part of an investigation of public corruption and financial fraud. The investigation, which court papers say involves other Hawaii politicians, is ongoing.
When he retired, English said he was suffering from long-Covid symptoms. English’s symptoms included sleep apnea, cognitive memory problems, lethargy and breathing problems, his attorney Rick Sing wrote in a memorandum this week.
“The symptoms associated with Long Haul Covid impact his daily life from gardening to computer work,” Sing wrote.
Sing wrote that English has been truthful since being arrested and immediately confessed to law enforcement. He also met with prosecutors and “answered questions … to the best of his ability.”
A 30-month sentence, Sing wrote, “would provide a just and sufficient punishment while recognizing the seriousness of this offense.”
More than two dozen people wrote letters to Mollway asking for leniency for English. Many spoke of the work he did as a state legislator, securing funding for roads or other projects, and how it benefitted their communities.
One of his supporters is Molokai resident Zessica Apiki, who was English’s classmate at Kamehameha Schools in the 1980s.
“Mr. English was a champion of Hawaiian culture and environmental reforms,” Apiki wrote. “He spent many years doing good work for his community, including Molokai, and that should count for something.”
But prosecutors note that English had a long career as a politician.
“He was therefore, quite literally, in the business of making friends,” Sorenson wrote in the government’s sentencing memorandum.
English failed to disclose bribe payments and other gifts on financial disclosure forms filed with the state.
“In doing so, he defrauded the very people he was elected to serve,” Sorenson wrote.
A mitigating factor was his cooperation with law enforcement, although prosecutors say he “failed to provide either the quantum or quality of assistance sufficient to warrant a downward departure” from sentencing guidelines.
But other factors are stacked against him.
Federal investigators apparently weren’t looking into English until he unwittingly tipped off the FBI by asking Choy for Las Vegas hotel rooms. Choy, who is referred to in court documents as Person A, was already working as an informant. English’s willingness on multiple occasions to take legislative action for payment was an aggravating factor.
Another was his position as the Senate majority leader, where the public would expect him to uphold his oath of office. English’s actions, Sorenson wrote, hurt public confidence in elected officials.
Even when he announced his retirement in April 2021, he did so under the guise of long Covid and made no mention of his arrest. Although he cooperated with federal law enforcement after his arrest in January 2021, English first tried to hide a final bribe from Choy under a car floor mat during a traffic stop.
“English had been nabbed with his hand deep in the cookie jar, and his decision to cooperate was both expected and obvious,” Sorenson wrote.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.
Read the court filings below.