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Honolulu Architect Is Headed To Prison For Bribery But Still Has His License

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Honolulu Architect Is Headed To Prison For Bribery But Still Has His License

Sep 24, 2023 | 9:33 pm ET
By Christina Jedra/Civil Beat
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William “Bill” Wong, center, looks back to his attorney Bill Harrison, left, as he addresses the media after his sentencing hearing on July 27. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
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William “Bill” Wong, center, looks back to his attorney Bill Harrison, left, as he addresses the media after his sentencing hearing on July 27. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In four months, Honolulu architect Bill Wong will be wearing a prison uniform and will be known as inmate No. 58344-509. 

But until then, Wong is free to run his architecture business as usual, drafting plans and submitting them to the scene of his crimes: the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting. 

More than two years after Wong admitted to bribing county permitting workers with over $100,000, and two months since he was sentenced, Wong still holds a state of Hawaii architecture license. The Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, or DCCA, has yet to take any formal action against him. 

Wong, 74, still has several active permit applications in Honolulu’s system and continues to submit plans to the department, even as recently as last week. He was originally supposed to report to prison on Sept. 7, but the court delayed the self-surrender date due to undisclosed “medical reasons.”

Asked for comment, DCCA would only say that a complaint is open and pending with the Regulated Industries Complaints Office, or RICO.

“Upon the conclusion of the investigation, findings of fact may be referred to the Board of Professional Engineers, Architects, Surveyors, and Landscape Architects for further action,” DCCA spokesman William Nhieu said in a statement. 

The idea that DCCA is still investigating Wong is “utterly asinine,” said Camron Hurt, program director for Common Cause Hawaii. 

“I am flabbergasted how someone can admit they were corrupt and somehow the DCCA board still thinks, years later, there is something to consider,” he said. “That is a slap in the face to the public.” 

DCCA declined to make anyone available to answer follow-up questions. A message left with the chair of the licensing board, electrical engineer Clayton Pang, was not returned.

Wong’s attorney, Bill Harrison, said his client only recently got a letter saying DCCA intends to take action against his license. But the disciplinary process really begins with the issuance of a formal petition followed by a hearing, neither of which has occurred, according to Harrison.

The licensing authority would seem to have cause to act.

The law states licensing authorities can suspend or revoke licenses due to “professional misconduct” or failing to maintain a record of “trustworthiness, fair dealing, and financial integrity.” They can also take action after a criminal conviction “directly related to the qualifications, functions, or duties of the licensed profession or vocation.”

Last year, DCCA said it only considers a person “convicted” after the court has entered a judgment at sentencing. Wong was sentenced in July.

Honolulu DPP Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna said she was the one who filed the RICO complaint against Wong. As her department works to reform itself following the bribery scandal, she said DPP’s clerks aren’t happy to review Wong’s plans. At this point, though, they have no choice. 

For the state not to take action is “disheartening,” Takeuchi Apuna said. 

“It’s important on the professional licensing side that there’s accountability, consequences, et cetera to ensure that people are doing their job properly,” she said.

Harrison sees it differently. Wong was trying to get his clients’ plans through the maze of DPP permitting – and crossed the line to do it – but Harrison said the architectural drawings themselves were up to code.

“This is not your normal kind of moral turpitude case,” he said. “Everybody knows the only way you get your permits through is you pay. I think that’s a different category than what the DCCA is trying to protect. They’re trying to protect the public from someone who is not properly doing their job.”

Harrison acknowledged that DCCA could have already come after Wong’s license. The legal standard for filing a disciplinary petition is “preponderance of evidence” – much lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in court. Wong admitted under oath in 2021 that he bribed DPP.

But if DCCA petitions Wong, Harrison said he would argue that Wong should keep his license.

“Obviously, he’s not paying to play anymore,” he said. “He’s not hurting anybody … Should he be prohibited from feeding his family?”

In the absence of DCCA action, Takeuchi Apuna is advocating for the passage of Honolulu City Council legislation. Bill 36 would prohibit building applications from anyone convicted of bribing DPP or causing a DPP worker to be convicted of bribery. It passed a first reading in June and is awaiting review in the zoning committee.

Hurt of Common Cause said he would support the proposal. The public needs to feel that misconduct will be met with consequences.

“In Hawaii, there is a clear corruption problem that the general public feels,” he said. “It is a general public feeling that rules for thee are not rules for me.”