Former Na Leo TV CEO Stacy Higa is pleading guilty to federal charges of federal programs embezzlement and bribery the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported on Saturday.
Higa, a former Hawaii County councilman and 2020 mayoral candidate, entered into a plea agreement Aug. 19 with the federal government, although no documents have yet been filed, according to his lawyer, William Harrison.
The government filed a charging document Sept. 2 in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia against Higa.
The crimes are linked to former Olelo TV executive Hanalei Aipoalani, who also took a plea deal in March and was sentenced June 30 to three years and 10 months in prison for embezzlement and accepting a bribe.
Higa bribed Aipoalani, who was working as the CARES Act program administrator for the city’s Department of Community Services, in connection with the authorization of two fraudulent applications under the CARES Act totaling $845,000 in the names of two companies, the charging document said.
They are Na Leo o Hawaii, a nonprofit operating Hawaii island’s public-access cable channels, and a company called Makaala. Harrison said he does not know the nature of the latter business, and his client has no ownership in that company.
With regard to the embezzlement charge, Higa fraudulently took $38,642 in AmeriCorps funds from the Hawaii Commission for National and Community Services, where he had served as executive director from 2011 until May 31, 2020, when he resigned to run for Hawaii County mayor.
He did this by causing the commission to fraudulently enter into contracts with Na Leo and Olelo Community Media, Oahu’s public-access cable channels operator, in order to convert the funds to his own and others’ personal use. This occurred between February 2018 and September 2020.
In the AmeriCorps embezzlement scheme, Aipoalani, while employed as Olelo’s human resources director, paid himself $527,000 from money Olelo received from AmeriCorps between 2014 and 2019 to pay stipends to AmeriCorps volunteers. He funneled the money through Na Leo and also kept volunteers’ names on the books even when they were no longer volunteering.
AmeriCorps is a federal program that helps communities in need, and the commission administers the funds for AmeriCorps to organizations.
Charges against Higa were anticipated after federal agents in October raided Na Leo TV’s Hilo offices and the Hawaii Commission, as well as Aipoalani’s home and storage unit.
Also Na Leo TV and Higa, though not expressly named in documents in Aipoalani’s case, were identified by description.
Higa, who resigned from Na Leo on June 30, “will take full responsibility for mistakes and bad decisions that he has made,” Harrison said. “He expresses that with a heavy heart; he sincerely apologizes to the community, friends and especially his family for his inappropriate conduct. He is prepared to face the consequences of his actions and begin to repair the trust he has broken.”
Harrison said he is unaware of any other possible defendants who could be tied to Higa’s case.
Court documents in the Aipoalani case reveal he and Higa discussed “opening up LLCs on Oahu, using their wives as principles to launder the money.”