Last liquor investigator
is sentenced

The judge denies supervised release
but credits his cooperation

The last of eight former Honolulu Liquor Commission investigators indicted in May 2002 for accepting bribes for overlooking liquor violations was ordered to serve 22 months in prison and two years of supervised release.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra rejected Kenneth L. Wright's request to be placed in home detention and granted the government's request to give him credit for his cooperation and sentence him to a lesser term than recommended by federal sentencing guidelines.

Yesterday's sentencing capped what Ezra called one of the most "open and notorious cases of public corruption" he had seen in the last couple of decades.

Two supervisors and six investigators who worked the night shift were charged in a 57-count indictment with conspiracy to commit racketeering and extortion charges for accepting bribes from proprietors of at least 45 alcohol establishments over a year-long period.

The indictment resulted from a FBI probe that involved a fellow liquor investigator going undercover to obtain more than 80 days of tape-recorded conversations between him and the corrupt investigators.

The conversations detailed payments ranging from $40 to $1,080 a visit between October 2000 and September 2001, in addition to other favors, prosecutors said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Purpura characterized Wright as one of the more aggressive collectors of the bribes but recommended a sentence below the advisory sentencing guideline range of 37 to 46 months.

"We felt 22 months was a good balance between his level of culpability and the cooperation and assistance he provided," Purpura said.

Wright, 50, was the first to reach an agreement with the government and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering and three counts of extortion two months after the indictment.

Lynn Panagakos, Wright's attorney, argued for home detention because of the hardship incarceration would place on him and his 16-year-old son. Wright suffers from sleep apnea and needs oxygen to help him breathe while sleeping, is a single parent and also cares for a brother who was recently injured in a car accident, she said.

Wright apologized yesterday for his actions. He was ordered to surrender to federal officials on July 18.

At previous sentencing hearings, Ezra likened the corrupt investigators' activities to turning the agency into a racketeering enterprise, a view shared by prosecutors.

"The striking thing about this case is that a law enforcement agency was found to be a racketeering enterprise," said Purpura. "It shows the level of pervasive corruption very rarely seen anywhere."

Commission officials did not return calls for comment.

Last month, a city audit accused the commission of inadequate oversight and management, leading to calls for the commission to get rid of administrator Wally Weatherwax and chief investigator John Carroll.

Both have said they will not resign. The commission has been working on a strategic plan to guide the agency's direction for the next five years.

Meanwhile, the commission is under investigation again by the FBI, whose agents searched the commission's offices earlier this year.

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