The CEO of Hawaii island’s public access station, Stacy Higa, will take a leave of absence after his former colleague told federal prosecutors Higa tried to bribe him into steering CARES Act money his way.

The board of directors of Na Leo, the Big Island’s only public access station, announced the news on Monday afternoon.

Stacy Higa is the president and CEO of Na Leo. He is a former county councilman and former mayoral candidate. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2018

“The Board has been informed that a former employee has made allegations concerning its Chief Executive Director, Stacy K. Higa,” the directors wrote in a statement to the media. “To enable Mr. Higa to address these allegations while limiting any interference or disruption to Nā Leo o Hawaii’s operations, the Board has agreed to have him take a leave of absence, effective April 1, 2021.”

The station will continue “normal day-to-day operations,” they said.

Higa did not respond to a request for comment sent on Sunday. He has not been charged with a federal or state crime, according to a search of court records.

His leave comes three days after Hanalei Aipoalani, a former senior advisor to Higa, pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzlement and accepting a bribe.

In a plea agreement, Aipoalani stated that the CEO of Hawaii island’s public access TV station conspired with him last year to fraudulently obtain CARES Act money from Honolulu. Aipoalani worked as a temporary CARES Act program administrator from August through November.

Hanalei Y. Aipoalani
Hanalei Aipoalani pleaded guilty to embezzling AmeriCorps money from Olelo and accepting a bribe to direct Honolulu CARES money to his co-conspirator. 

The CEO was not named in the agreement, but Na Leo TV is the Big Island’s only public access TV station, and Higa has been its president and CEO for years. The FBI raided the station’s offices last year.

According to the plea agreement, the CEO promised Aipoalani financial benefits if he would influence the approval of his applications to Honolulu for COVID-19 relief money.

In August and September, Aipoalani said he repeatedly advised the CEO on how to apply for two grants through two entities controlled by the CEO: Na Leo and an unnamed “business and leadership consulting” business on Hawaii island.

Aipoalani and his co-conspirator “discussed splitting the remaining funds” after Na Leo and the other company completed the required work for the grants, according to the plea deal. Aipoalani expected his co-conspirator to set him up with a job that would pay approximately $60,000 a year, the agreement said.

The men also talked about having their wives front limited liability companies on Oahu in order to launder money, according to the agreement.

Ultimately, the station leader applied for $845,000 on behalf of Na Leo and his other company and claimed false expenses, according to the agreement. According to a federal official, the criminal investigation “disrupted” the scheme to obtain those funds.

Higa is a former Hawaii County councilman. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the county last year. Previously, he was the executive director of the Hawaii Commission on National & Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps programs.

Aipoalani admitted in the plea agreement to embezzling more than $500,000 from Olelo Community Media’s AmeriCorps program when he was the nonprofit’s human resources director.

Part of that scheme involved falsely representing to Olelo that it owed money to Na Leo for AmeriCorps services performed by Aipoalani’s wife and another individual, according to the agreement.

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