Hawaii Democrat Ty Cullen, formerly a state-level representative, was sentenced Thursday to two years in prison in a federal corruption case involving bribery. Cullen had served in Hawaii’s House since 2011 before resigning in February amid the criminal charges.
By going to prison, Cullen has drawn attention to a perennial problem in the idyllic islands: the tens of thousands of cesspools that release 50 million gallons of raw sewage into the state’s pristine waters every day.
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Cesspools — in-ground pits that collect sewage from houses and buildings not connected to city services for gradual release into the environment — are at the center of the criminal case against Cullen.
The former representative has admitted to taking bribes of cash and gambling chips… in exchange for influencing legislation to reduce Hawaii’s widespread use of cesspools.
Worse yet, Cullen was serving as vice chair of the powerful House Finance Committee for part of the time he received bribes.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway said she gave Cullen a sentence at the shortest end of the term recommended by prosecutors because he had cooperated extensively with investigators. Yet she didn’t go as low as the 15 months requested by his defense attorney because of the serious nature of his crimes.
“This was a grievous breach of public trust on your part. It appears to have been motivated by greed, and it stretched out over a number of years,” Mollway told Cullen, according to the Associated Press. “I am very concerned that this was not a momentary lapse of judgment.”
Cullen told the judge he took full responsibility for and was ashamed of his actions.
“I want to say I’m sorry to my family who stayed by me, to my friends, to my constituents, my community and the people of Hawaii,” Cullen said, choking up. “I will continue to work to make my wrongs right. And ensure that this never happens again.”
Mollway fined Cullen $25,000, in addition to sending him to prison.
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The toxic pits proliferated in Hawaii in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. when investment in sewer lines didn’t keep up with rapid development.
Today, Hawaii has 83,000 cesspools, more than any other state. It banned new cesspools only recently, in 2016.
Now, the Aloha State wants them gone, due to the risk of groundwater contamination.
However, the small state has been hampered by the lack of knowledge about this very specialized field, according to University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore.
“That just creates a lot of opportunities because comparisons are so difficult to make, especially in a really small market like Hawaii where there may only be two, or in some cases even one, contractor who can do the work,” Moore said. “Who’s to say that the bid is inflated?”
Criminal cases related to Cullen’s have led to guilty pleas from the Honolulu businessman who bribed the lawmaker and a former Senate majority leader.
An estimated 16% of Hawaii housing units have cesspools, but the share is much higher on more rural islands like the Big Island, where more than half of the homes have them. They’re found everywhere from the mountains to the seashore and even in urban neighborhoods just miles from downtown Honolulu.
In these homes, effluence from toilets and showers flows through drains into a pit in a yard instead of into a sewer line and to a central wastewater treatment plant. Raw sewage — including all its bacteria and pathogens — then seeps from the pit into the ground, groundwater, aquifers and ocean.
The sewage can contaminate drinking water. In the ocean, it can fuel the growth of reef-smothering algae. Amid rising sea levels, scientists expect the ocean to increasingly inundate cesspools on coastal properties, pushing sewage into waters where people swim.
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Take a look —
Efforts to Make Hawaii Less of the Cesspool Capital Mostly Fail http://t.co/W3z74zPSWy #hawaii pic.twitter.com/JTQt9M8TzG
— Duke Kahanamoku (@dukestatue) April 30, 2015
Amid health concerns, the Legislature has drafted bills to phase out cesspools. In 2017 the state enacted a law requiring homeowners to close their cesspools and hook up to sewer systems or install cleaner on-site waste treatment systems by 2050. The most common on-site alternative is a septic tank and leach field combination, in which bacteria break down solids inside a tank and a disposal field removes wastewater and pathogens while safely returning water to the landscape.
This year, lawmakers are considering additional legislation, including one bill that would accelerate conversion deadlines for cesspools in more environmentally sensitive areas to 2035 and 2040. Another would establish a pilot program to expand county sewage systems.
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In a plea agreement, Cullen admitted receiving envelopes of cash to help pass a bill related to cesspool conversions.
Cullen accepted a total of $30,000 from Honolulu businessman Milton Choy, who is due to be sentenced next month. He’s also admitted accepting $22,000 in gambling chips from Choy during a trip to a New Orleans wastewater conference.
Court documents say Choy’s company regularly entered into contracts with government agencies to provide wastewater management services and was well-placed to benefit from publicly financed cesspool conversion projects.
J. Kalani English, a Democrat and the former Senate majority leader, has already been sentenced to three years and four months in prison for taking bribes from Choy, also in exchange for influencing cesspool legislation.
Prosecutors did not recommend a sentence more lenient than federal guidelines because English did not cooperate the way Cullen did, said Ken Sorenson, the assistant U.S. attorney on that case.
Separately, a former Maui County wastewater manager admitted taking $2 million from Choy in exchange for steering at least 56 sole-source contracts to his business. He was sentenced to 10 years in February.
The case has invited jests likening the unsanitary disposal pits to underhanded political behavior.
“We were joking that, ‘Oh, now these politicians have given cesspools a bad name,’” said Stuart Coleman, a longtime advocate for shutting down Hawaii’s cesspools and the executive director of the nonprofit Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations.
“It’s not too far a jump when you talk about this kind of corruption and (then) you talk about the cesspool that is politics.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.