Samuel Ho walked into the federal courthouse accompanied by his attorney, David Gierlach, yesterday afternoon.

Ex-liquor investigator
sentenced for bribes

The judge repeatedly lambastes
the agency for wide and blatant
corruption in its staff

A former investigator for the Honolulu Liquor Commission was sentenced to 22 months in federal prison for accepting bribes from bar owners in exchange for overlooking liquor violations.

Samuel K.Y. Ho, 46, pleaded guilty in July 2002 to conspiracy to commit racketeering and three counts of extortion in what U.S. District Judge David Ezra described yesterday as the most "open and notorious case of public corruption" he'd seen in his 17 years on the bench.

Ezra took the occasion to repeatedly lambaste the Liquor Commission.

"They basically turned the Liquor Commission inspection office into a racketeering enterprise," Ezra said, noting that he was appalled at the lengthy period that the corruption was allowed to continue and the brazenness of investigators.

"We have to ask ourselves, where is management? Where is the oversight here? Who is looking out to make sure these people are doing their jobs?" Ezra said. "Where are the people who are supposed to be watching the house? Where are they?"

Honolulu Liquor Commission Administrator Wallace Weatherwax could not be reached for comment.

Ho is one of eight former liquor investigators, including two supervisors, who were indicted by a federal grand jury in May 2002 for accepting bribes from October 2000 to December 2001.

Their activities were secretly recorded by a fellow investigator who agreed to go undercover and who later sued his supervisors for retaliating against him for cooperating in the federal investigation.

The investigators targeted 45 liquor establishments or hostess bars on Oahu, obtaining payments ranging from $40 to $1,080 per visit.

In reviewing the conversations secretly recorded during the investigation, "Mr. Ho was one of the more aggressive of the extorters in this case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Seabright said yesterday.

In one of those conversations, Ho was heard saying that issuing citations to local nightclubs was a good way for club owners to realize the benefits of paying off liquor investigators.

"The reality of it is, things like this have to happen so she appreciate your worth," Ho told a fellow investigator after accepting $100 from the owner of Club New Lotte in December 2000.

Seabright said Ho and another co-defendant, Kenneth Wright, who is expected to be sentenced today, were among the first to come forward to discuss their involvement in the case.

Ho also testified at the April 2004 trial that resulted in convictions against his former supervisor, Harvey T. Hiranaka, and fellow investigator Eduardo Mina.

City Councilman Charles Djou, a critic of the Liquor Commission, said: "We have got to reform the Liquor Commission -- top to bottom, inside out -- it is a disaster of an agency."

The commission is being investigated by the FBI. The city auditor also is expected to release a report soon.

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