HONOLULU – The speaker of Hawaii's House of Representatives said Wednesday he supports stronger ethics laws and penalties to prevent bribery at the Legislature after federal prosecutors this week alleged two former lawmakers took bribes in exchange for shaping legislation while in office.
“I’m not sure how much worse it could get. This is quid pro quo public corruption. This is really bad,” Speaker Scott Saiki told reporters.
He said he doesn't believe bribery is widespread among lawmakers.
“I was shocked by this report. I just couldn’t believe it. My colleagues on our caucus today were still in shock,” Saiki said.
Federal prosecutors on Tuesday alleged that former state Rep. Ty Cullen and former Senate Majority Leader Sen. J. Kalani English 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.
Cullen resigned shortly before prosecutors announced the charges. English retired last May, saying he was suffering from long-term effects of COVID-19.
Both Cullen and English are members of the Democratic Party, which holds supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
Saiki didn’t have specifics on how ethics laws could be strengthened, and said lawmakers would have to think about them.
He said the House had started a review of Cullen’s votes and legislation he had introduced. The House would release a summary of that review, and was open to an independent third party helping conduct it, he said.
“This incident does cast the shadow upon all of our work. And I know that everything that we do will be, and deservedly should be, heavily scrutinized,” he said.
Saiki said neither he nor other House leaders have been contacted by the U.S. attorney's office or other federal investigators.
Lawmakers need to make sure they pass “good, sensible legislation that that is responsive to what the public needs and what the public wants” to earn back the public's trust, Saiki said. They must avoid the appearance that legislation is being moved to just advance narrow interests, he said.
Asked how the case would affect the Democratic Party “brand” and the possible perception the party is corrupt, Saiki said: “I think the key will be our ability to respond to this and to improve. That’s going to be the key test for us as Democrats."
Senate President Ron Kouchi issued a statement regarding the allegations.
“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," Kouchi said. "We must rededicate ourselves and work to rebuild the public’s trust in government.”