Convicted Hawaii Businessman Milton Choy Has Died In Custody At A North Carolina Facility

The manner and cause of his death are still not known.

Milton Choy, the former businessman at the center of Hawaii’s largest bribery scandal that took down two state lawmakers and Maui County officials in 2022, died Saturday afternoon in North Carolina, according to federal prison officials.

Choy was being held at a federal medical center in Butner, North Carolina. He was found unresponsive at around 12:30 p.m., according to Bureau of Prisons spokesman Emery Nelson.

Facility employees started life-saving measures while emergency medical services were contacted, Nelson said in an email. Choy was taken to an area hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was 61 years old, and was set to be released in 2026.

Milton Choy walking into the U.S. District Courthouse.Milton Choy walking into the U.S. District Courthouse.
Hawaii businessman Milton Choy died Saturday while in custody in North Carolina. (Phillip Jung for The New York Times)

The FBI was notified, and no other inmates were injured at the time of Choy’s death, Nelson said.

The circumstances surrounding Choy’s death are still unknown. The BOP declined to provide specifics regarding cause of death. An investigation by the North Carolina medical examiner’s office is ongoing. Death records were not yet available Monday morning in nearby Durham and Granville counties.

Michael Green, Choy’s Honolulu lawyer, was off island and unavailable for comment. Choy’s wife declined an interview.

A quarter of all deaths in the federal prison system occur at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, a recent National Public Radio investigation found.

The medical center at Butner is the largest facility of its kind in the federal prison system. It specializes in drug and cancer treatment.

Choy owned and operated H2O Process Systems, a wastewater and water processing equipment distributor that for years dominated the market in Hawaii. The company was often the only one available to supply replacement parts for wastewater facilities across the islands.

But those lucrative contracts eventually got the company in trouble.

Choy paid about $2 million in bribes to a former Maui official, Stewart Stant, in exchange for $20 million in sole-source contracts. Both men pleaded guilty to charges involving that bribery scheme in 2022.

Maui County Council staff members reported the inordinate amount of contracts going to H2O Process Systems to the FBI in 2018. They also noted Choy’s extraordinary level of political donations. Campaign finance records show that he and his business associates donated more than $390,000 to local candidates.

1950 Young Street Suite 300. Milton Choi old offices.1950 Young Street Suite 300. Milton Choi old offices.
H2O Process Systems once dominated wastewater sales in Hawaii. Its offices sat vacant after Choy’s cooperation in the bribery case became public. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Choy began assisting the FBI in an ongoing investigation into public corruption in 2019. His assistance led to the arrests of Stant and Wilfredo Savella, another Maui wastewater employee who admitted to taking bribes from Choy.

Choy’s cooperation also led to the convictions of two former state lawmakers: Sen. J. Kalani English and Rep. Ty Cullen.

English pleaded guilty to accepting illicit gifts from Choy in the form of cash payments and trips to Las Vegas in exchange for insider information on a state wastewater working group. Cullen admitted to taking gambling chips in New Orleans and cash from Choy.

English and Cullen were both released early from prison this year.

Choy easily moved through political circles, and had ties to Senate President Ron Kouchi. Emails provided by Maui County show he also arranged and paid for dinner and lunch meetings with county employees, including Stant, as well as politicians like Cullen.

His proximity to the backroom deals that have come to define corruption in Hawaii greatly aided federal investigators. He recorded dozens of conversations as an FBI informant and was one of the most valuable sources for the Hawaii U.S. Attorney’s office.

Choy’s cooperation and help in obtaining criminal convictions spurred new policy proposals to strengthen government ethics and disclosure requirements. His bribery scheme in Maui County exposed an inadequate system of holding public officials accountable.

And his political involvement and campaign donations shined a light on the pay-to-play culture that has become prevalent in Hawaii.

“Should we all run out and buy him a ‘Thank You’ card, maybe not. But we do all owe him,” U.S. Judge Derrick Watson said at Choy’s sentencing in August.

Choy was sentenced to more than three years in prison at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Los Angeles. It’s unclear when he was transferred to North Carolina. Choy was also ordered to receive treatment for alcohol abuse.

The court also entered a $4 million monetary judgment against Choy. Choy and his wife recently sold their six-bedroom Manoa home for $4 million.

Anna Harden

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