HONOLULU (KHON2) — Those affected by the alleged bribery schemes described in federal charges against Kalani English and Ty Cullen include people working in good faith to solve one of Hawaii’s most pressing environmental threats: cesspools and their 53 million gallons-a-day of untreated sewage.
Advocates working on behalf of the mandate to get rid of nearly 90,000 cesspools in Hawaii by 2050 say it’s disheartening to see alleged pay-to-play politics getting in the way of legitimate momentum.
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The feds allege well-connected business pressure and money were behind bribes to facilitate — then to make disappear — bills that would have expedited big wastewater projects.
“To hear that people were at first supporting these bills, and then trying to kill them it’s incredibly frustrating for nonprofits like us, but also just as an individual,” said Stuart Coleman of the nonprofit Wastewater Alternatives & Innovations, and a member of the state’s Cesspool Conversion Working Group. “I’ve been working on this issue for probably more than 10 years now.”
“This is why people say politics is often a cesspool,” Coleman added.
“Our elected officials and people who have been placed in office to protect us to be public servants are not personal servants,” said Sandy Ma of Common Cause Hawaii which advocates for government accountability. “This is a very disturbing trend that we are seeing in government.”
Always Investigating followed where the feds say the money went. Authorities allege someone called “Person A” wanted then-Sen. Kalani English and Rep. Ty Cullen to spur and then spurn legislation that would have supported cesspool conversions. We checked past legislative sessions saw bill after bill on the topic move along then hit a wall. Now, advocates say, it’s making a little more sense why something so important fizzled time and again at the Capitol.
“It just really kind of puts a pall over the Capitol,” Coleman said. “But I have to remind myself that it’s just a few bad apples, as they say. The whole system isn’t this way.”
“We should not turn away,” Ma said, “because when we turn away, we allow bad actors to take hold. And so that’s what I say: We should watch more closely. Be more vigilant, because this is the people’s house.”
Part of the alleged scheme was to help tee up Person A’s business to reap the profits when eventually the big government-funded cesspool projects would go out for state or county bid. Advocates of proper wastewater management say the alleged scheme was remarkably shortsighted due to the scope of work out there for the taking in Hawaii.
“We have more cesspools per capita than any other state in the country by far,” Coleman explained. “It’s a huge problem. It’s a $2 billion to $4 billion problem to convert all cesspools across the state. We’re doing about 150 to 200 conversions a year. To get to the mandate to convert all round-up-to-90,000 cesspools by 2050, we have to be doing over 3,000 a year. So it’s got to expand exponentially. Not only is it (the alleged bribery) morally wrong and ethically wrong, but it was also just practically kind of silly, because there’s going to be enough business for everyone.”
The feds say Person A also wanted English’s help keeping tabs on the Cesspool Conversion Working Group. The group consists of officials, volunteers and other stakeholders who have worked for years on how to stem the flow of 53 million gallons of raw sewage cesspools allow each day into Hawaii’s waters. At one point English was a member of that working group.
“I know that Sen. English wasn’t in any of the meetings,” Coleman said about the group that is aiming to wrap up this year. “And that was always seemed kind of strange to me, that here we are working so hard, and we never saw him or representative at the group.”
According to the feds, English told Person A he doesn’t attend “purposefully,” adding: “I don’t want to overshadow their work.” But English allegedly slipped Person A an unpublished draft committee report that could have given the company a leg up on bidding.
The cesspool group, and the legislature, were just alleged stepping stones. Person A allegedly had sights set on getting big contracts after favorable legislation. Always Investigating reached out to county and state agencies that issue wastewater bids to ask how they ensure contracts aren’t influenced by bribes or other improprieties. We have yet to hear back.
“We’ve just got to make sure improve — by the legal process, and making sure those who are guilty are punished — that this is a fair ball game,” Coleman said.