Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation information specialist Russell Yamanoha pleaded guilty earlier this week to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge of helping to rig a union vote in 2015.

The matter was unrelated to rail, but HART already faces its own well-documented issues trying to rebuild public trust, following years of mismanagement and soaring project costs.

Nonetheless, the agency’s leader said Thursday he saw “no compelling reason” to dismiss Yamanoha.

Executive Director Andrew Robbins said HART would wait until Yamanoha’s sentencing to decide what, if any, action should be taken. That’s expected to happen in early December.

“At this point in time, he’s doing a good job at HART and there’s no real valid reason for us to change his employment status,” Robbins said.

Yamanoha, a former television sports reporter, joined HART in July 2017, where he serves under the official title of Information Specialist. Last year he earned a salary of $86,304, according to Civil Beat’s searchable public employee salary database.

vHART Executive Director Andrew Robbins press conference at Alii Place.
Russell Yamanoha, center, records comments by HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins, right, during a press conference in February on the agency’s federal subpoenas. Yamanoha pleaded guilty to misdemeanor conspiracy charges on Tuesday but he remains at HART. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During a press conference outside HART’s Alii Place headquarters on Thursday, Robbins stressed repeatedly that Yamanoha is not a spokesperson for the rail agency. He described him as “more of a back-office employee.”

However, Yamanoha is one of its media contacts. He often joins Robbins and other media staff at press conferences, although he didn’t attend the one held Thursday. He assisted Robbins in February during HART’s media briefings on the agency’s grand jury subpoenas, part of a separate federal criminal investigation.

Robbins was evasive Thursday when pressed for more details on the decision to keep Yamanoha on board.

“The advice that we’ve been given was that there’s no compelling reason at this point to change his employment status until we hear what the ruling from the judge will be,” Robbins told reporters.

But Robbins would not say who gave him the advice.

“I don’t want to identify which people,” he said.

Yamanoha’s election-rigging troubles stem from his time working at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1260 under its former leader, Brian Ahakuelo. As Hawaii News Now reported, Yamanoha has agreed as part of his plea deal to testify against Ahakuelo, who was indicted on 70 counts of embezzlement and wire fraud.

Yamanoha did not respond to a voicemail message left late Thursday.

Robbins said the information specialist’s day-to-day job duties haven’t changed.

Asked why Yamanoha wasn’t at the press conference Thursday, Robbins paused and then said “there’s no particular reason.”

“It’s not needed,” he added.

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