HONOLULU (KHON2) — It’s been nearly two months since two lawmakers pled guilty to felony charges connected with bribes from a businessman with lucrative government contracts.
Other politicians pledged to give back legal donations they had received. So far about one-third of donations affiliated with Milton Choy have been returned. While unprecedented, there’s still a lot left on the table.
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In the charges and plea deals involving former state Sen. Kalani English and former Rep. Ty Cullen, the feds describe how “Person A” bribed both of them in exchange for political favors. Person A, wastewater-industry entrepreneur Milton Choy, also gave lots of money in legal donations to dozens of politicians: more than $300,000 from Choy, his family and people affiliated with his companies since 2014. Choy’s companies scored at least $8.2 million in state and county contracts.
Right after the English-Cullen news broke, one of the biggest recipients of Choy-affiliated donations — House Finance Chairwoman Rep. Sylvia Luke — told KHON2 this in February: “We have a responsibility to forfeit every single cent of what was what was contributed, because we have to do what is right to restore public trust.”
At the same time, a bunch of senators pledged they’d get rid of the money too.
“That’s the shadow, the appearance of impropriety,” said political analyst John Hart from Hawaii Pacific University. “We don’t know if you were bribed, but we know other people were bribed by the same guy that gave you money.”
Always Investigating checked whether those refund checks were ever written.
The Campaign Spending Commission tells us they received dozens of returns, known as “escheats” because the money went to the commission and not back to Choy — from February thru March, totaling well over $100,000. Luke gave back the most, more than $25,000, followed by $14,000 from Senate President Ron Kouchi.
Gary Kam, general counsel for the commission, told KHON2: “The sheer number of candidate committees and amount of funds being voluntarily turned over to the state, all from essentially one contributor, is fairly unprecedented.”
Always Investigating saw a handful of big names noticeably absent, including a couple senators who had pledged a giveback, so we followed up. Several thousand more was added, after our calls, from Sen. Dru Kanuha who said his treasurer sent a check for $6,000, and from Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s treasurer saying they gave back $7,500.
All in, that’s more than $130,000 back to the commission so far. Tens of thousands from past candidates or lawmakers will likely never be returned.
Sen. Maile Shimabukuro was on the February pledge list but not on the commission return log. She told KHON2 she gave it to charity instead, $750 so far, another $2,000 pending.
Honolulu City Councilmember Calvin Say he’s also exploring donations to a nonprofit instead.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami’s campaign is keeping his donations, telling us they “were not tied to any improper or unethical action.”
“He might have credibility in terms of, well, you know, he wouldn’t take the stand unless he’s clean, right?” Hart said.
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Still no response back from Gov. Davd Ige who got nearly $20,000 from Choy and affiliates over the years.
“He is sunsetting,” Hart said, “So he does have a lot less political risks.”