At International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260, stealing was a family business. And business hasn’t been good lately. On August 22, a Honolulu federal court unsealed a 70-count indictment against Brian Ahakuelo, former business manager for the Honolulu local, along with his wife and a sister-in-law, for conspiracy, money laundering, wire fraud and embezzlement related to the disappearance of an estimated $1.4 million in union funds. Ahakuelo and the two others subsequently pleaded not guilty. They will have to contend with indictments handed down the next day of four union members who allegedly rigged a union vote in 2015 to approve a dues hike to cover the losses. The indictments follow a five-year probe by the IRS, the Labor Department and the State of Hawaii.
IBEW Local 1260 represents more than 3,200 utility, broadcast, maintenance and contract workers in Hawaii, Guam and Wake Island. For at least five years, the union also functioned as a personal cash dispensary for the Ahakuelo family. Federal prosecutors are asserting that Brian Ahakuelo, with the help of wife Marilyn Ahakuelo and sister-in-law Jennifer Estencion, looted the union, stacking its executive board with inexperienced cronies who pretended not to see anything. Assured of full autonomy, Ahakuelo, who assumed his position as local business manager in 2011, allegedly diverted large sums toward outsized compensation packages for himself and family members. He also frequently dipped into the union till for various personal expenditures unrelated to union business. As a result of this profligacy, the union treasury during 2011-15 went from a $700,000 surplus to a $700,000 deficit. This negative swing matches the $1.4 million sum that he and his family are accused of stealing.
Yet there is another story connected to this one. According to the indictment, Brian Ahakuelo and his relatives fixed a rank-and-file vote held in January 2015 on a resolution to hike dues from 1.5 percent to 3 percent of wages. The proposal was approved, and the increased assessment produced an extra $3.7 million for IBEW Local 1260 coffers over the following 18 months. Of particular interest to prosecutors and dissenting union members is how that vote came to be.
The Justice Department complaint alleges that four union members – Michael Brittain, Lee Ann Miyamura, Daniel Rose and Russell Yamanoha – traveled to Guam to attend a conference just prior to the vote. The group met in a hotel conference room to prepare fake ballots with “yes” votes and then insert those ballots in place of real ones. Following the switch, one or more members discarded the real ballots in a trash bin in a park next to the hotel. The vote fraud, say prosecutors, enabled Ahakuelo supporters to impose a dues hike to conceal the missing funds. “It was very shocking,” said former union member Dustin Malama. “It kind of baffled me to…look at my paycheck and see there was a slight chunk missing because they doubled our dues. It feels validating to see that justice is going to be served in this matter.” Russell Yamanoha, now working as an information specialist for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), subsequently pleaded guilty to misdemeanor conspiracy on September 3 after being charged on August 23. Brittain, Miyamura and Rose likewise were charged on August 23.
The Ahakuelo clan apparently did pretty well during the years leading up to the election. Among other things, Brian Ahakuelo used Local 1260 funds to pay off a loan on his wife’s Toyota Tacoma truck and diverted $29,000 from the union to hire his son-in-law as a coordinator for a nonexistent job training program. The defendants also made unauthorized use of their union credit cards for travel to Las Vegas and other locations on the U.S. mainland. A financial audit of the local by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers headquarters in Washington, D.C. proved to be the unraveling of the scheme. The audit turned up substantial discrepancies. At that point, the union notified various federal agencies who conducted their own investigations and found similar shortfalls. In 2016, the IBEW removed Ahakuelo and other officials from their positions and placed the local under trusteeship. The following year, local members chose a new leadership team. The Ahakuelos received “target letters” from federal prosecutors this April, a sign that grand jury indictments were imminent. And the indictments came four months later.
Brian Ahakuelo and his accused family members aren’t doing so well now. The three defendants pleaded not guilty, but claimed that they could not afford an attorney. In response, the court provided them with public defenders. The defendants are currently free on $50,000 bond. In an interview with a local Honolulu TV station, Ahakuelo stated: “I need to make sure that I am not painted out to be a demon because I have not done anything wrong, anything. Everything I’ve done was for the members, always for the members.” His lawyer, Louis Ching (apparently Ahakuelo can afford a lawyer!), suggests that the real guilty parties are the four persons accused of the 2015 vote-rigging. “We’ll have to see whether or not they were telling the truth or they were self-serving in trying to protect their own selves because they could have been easily named in this (August 22) indictment,” said Ching.
But federal prosecutors believe that the evidence is overwhelming that the Ahakuelos used IBEW Local 1260 to engage in rampant self-dealing and concealment. “They falsified minutes and sign-in sheets for a membership meeting and prepared fake ballots indicating that members voted in favor of the resolution when they actually did not,” said Kenji Price, U.S. Attorney for Hawaii, during a news conference on August 23. He added: “Our office will aggressively investigate and prosecute corruption in unions…that abuse the trust vested in them by the hard-working folks in our communities.” A tentative trial date has been set for October 29.