Toxic cesspools, bribery at the root of Hawaii lawmaker’s case


A former Hawaii lawmaker is expected in court on Thursday for sentencing in a federal corruption case that’s drawn attention to a perennial problem in the islands: the tens of thousands of cesspools that release 50 million gallons of raw sewage into the state’s pristine waters every day.
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 centre of the criminal case against former Democratic state Rep. Ty Cullen. He has admitted to taking bribes of cash and gambling chips in exchange for influencing legislation to reduce Hawaii’s widespread use of cesspools.
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 of them — more than any other state — and only banned new cesspools in 2016. Now Hawaii is in a rush to get rid of them because of the environmental damage they do and the risk of groundwater contamination. Public spending on such efforts and the lack of knowledge about the specialized field can create conditions ripe for corruption, said Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii.
“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?” Cullen faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 when he is sentenced in U.S. District Court on Thursday. Prosecutors have recommended he spend between two and two-and-a-half years in prison. His attorney has asked for a 15-month sentence, given what he called Cullen’s “substantial assistance” to investigators.
Related criminal cases have led to guilty pleas from the Honolulu businessman who bribed Cullen and a former Senate majority leader. An estimated 16% of Hawaii’s 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 neighbourhoods’ just miles from downtown Honolulu.