Recent antics at the Oahu chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers remind us how great it is to have professional journalists around.

If you haven’t been following this story, the business manager at IBEW, Brian Ahakuelo, seems to be in the “business” of making his family quite comfortable financially through inside jobs funded by union dues.

This also, apparently, is not a new development. After Ahakuelo’s first year on the job, in 2012, a coworker alleged that he was hiring relatives, such as his wife, to work for him for ridiculously high wages. Ahakuelo also was investigated for allegations that he tried to round up hitmen within Local 1260 to take out his enemies in the organization.

How do we know about those allegations? Because of journalists (specifically Civil Beat’s Nick Grube).

Brian Ahakuelo recently retired from his position as business manager of IBEW Local 1260.
Brian Ahakuelo recently announced his retirement from his position as business manager of IBEW Local 1260 after being suspended pending an investigation into allegations of nepotism and improper spending. KITV

While that lawsuit eventually was settled out of court, Ahakuelo since has boosted his salary to more than $200,000 per year and paid his wife, Marilyn, their son, Brandon, and his sister-in-law, Jennifer Estencion, more than $100,000 per year each, plus $78,000 a year to his daughter-in-law, Neiani. He even has a fifth relative, son-in-law Eric Falkner, making $125,000 a year to coordinate and organize Local 1260’s training operations from, yes – you read it correctly – Las Vegas. 

So the Ahakuelo clan allegedly is making more than $700,000 per year off Local 1260’s union dues and buying and selling property, raising their compensation, taking family trips to Las Vegas, paying off bank loans (and who knows what else), without union approval. They even raised union dues, in the process, to help pay for it all.

How do we know that? Because of journalists (specifically the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Kristen Consillio).

I’m not sure why it took so long for the international union to discover these shenanigans; but oftentimes, it takes whistleblowers and journalists, working in tandem, to put the spotlight on corruption, in order for it to be addressed. The attorney general’s probe into this Ahakuelo situation apparently was prompted by these media reports.

Asking The Tough Questions

Earlier this month, the IBEW took the dramatic step of putting Local 1260 into a trusteeship, suspending Ahakuelo and 18 of his staff members while union representatives more deeply investigated these issues. What has IBEW told us about this sordid affair? Virtually nothing. The Local 1260 website notes that the union will have no further comment “until the process is complete,” which could take a year or more.

Thankfully, though, local journalists are around, asking tough questions, independently investigating these allegations and impatiently striving to tell us about this bizarre situation affecting more than 3,000 local electrical workers. Again, if there were no journalists around, you might hear something more about this … in a year. Maybe. Like the last Honolulu sheriff, the IBEW would rather this situation just goes away, but local journalists should take that response as a cue to dig even deeper, because something serious is under investigation here.

While that case still is developing, and local reporters are looking into it, that story reminded me of another strange recent series of revelations that we probably would know almost nothing about without the difficult and thankless work performed by a local journalist.

That person, Nancy Cook Lauer, embodies the journalistic ideology through her persistence and productivity at a small-town daily, West Hawaii Today, which circulates about 10,000 newspapers on the Kona side of the Big Island.

She moved to that area after her company’s Oahu bureau was closed. She since has become a literal “backpack” journalist, filing about a story a day, almost every day, plus an occasional weekend feature, while having to write her pieces in local coffee shops, government hallways and wherever else she can find a place to plop down her computer and work.

A Watchdog For The Big Island

That seems like a recipe for shallow, space-filling journalism; but Cook Lauer instead takes seriously her responsibilities as a watchdog for the community, regularly requesting public documents, attending public meetings and chatting with people of all types to better understand how the local government functions.

During a recent telephone conversation, Cook Lauer recalled how her traditional approach to the craft – including hanging around all sorts of civic activities – led an anonymous source to trust her enough to mail her a copy of a most curious receipt. It showed Hawaii’s mayor, Billy Kenoi, had used his government-issued credit card to splurge – with taxpayer money – at an Oahu “hostess” club.

Embattled Big Island Mayor Billy Keonoi walks in the Merrie Monarch parade earlier this month.
Embattled Big Island Mayor Billy Keonoi walks in the Merrie Monarch parade in early April. Photo by Denby Fawcett

Cook Lauer’s experience in this case serves as a classic example of how journalists earn their breaks. She had been routinely asking for Kenoi’s travel expenses and credit card expenditures since 2010, soon after she moved to the Big Island and took on her county government beat.

The county finance department, she said, kept summarizing those expenses into broad categories, such as airfare, hotels, meals, etc., without releasing specific details or allowing inspection of the receipts, which didn’t make for very interesting stories. But she kept asking, at least once a year, until her pluckiness finally led someone with intimate access to the documents to send her a particularly incriminating one.

Cook Lauer has been hooked onto the tail of some wild stories before, highlighted by her time as bureau chief for the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida during the infamously contested 2000 presidential election. During that period, she said, she hardly slept for months as she responded to the constantly breaking stories and national interest in everything she was discovering about the election process in Florida.

How To Get A Scoop

In the Kenoi case, she said, there was a similar adrenalin rush – albeit on a much smaller scale – when all of the state’s media focused on the stories she was breaking. That first story, with the receipt in hand, led Cook Lauer to argue successfully to get all of the documents she’d requested earlier released. Those showed that Kenoi didn’t just make a one-time mistake, he made many questionable purchases on the card, totaling more than $130,000, which have led to ongoing criminal charges and ethics complaints.

Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi during a legislative meeting at the Capitol earlier this year.
Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi during a legislative meeting at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

So, without Cook Lauer snooping around and putting together these pieces (followed by the complementary spate of coverage by most other media sources in the state), who knows what would have happened and where this alleged corruption would have led.

Testament to how Cook Lauer handled herself as a professional during this Kenoi ordeal was the way in which Kenoi and his supporters responded to her and her inquiries.

Peter Boylan, who now works as an executive assistant for the Honolulu City Council, not only was one of Kenoi’s handlers, he also was a close personal friend of his boss. He recalled Cook Lauer approaching him in the hallway near his office on a Friday afternoon, looking for the mayor, but getting in a discussion with him first about the story as it was about to break.

Boylan said he was shocked by what he heard but also respected Cook Lauer, and the job she does as a journalist. He said, “She’s normally a very diligent reporter, maybe the best in the state of Hawaii. She usually went through (public documents) with a comb.”

So Boylan said he helped her get in touch with the mayor and get all of the backlogged documents she had been requesting; Kenoi took her calls and openly answered her questions about the charges. The story was published, and Cook Lauer revealed to you, dear reader, what was happening behind the scenes in your government offices, which your tax dollars support.

I am not sure how pleased you were to have bought, for example, the new surfboard Kenoi wanted, but at least now you know about it. And I hope you routinely remember – and are thankful for – why you know about it: because of journalists!

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.