The ripple effects from the federal criminal prosecution of former Honolulu business owner Michael Miske Jr. are now rocking Local 665 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees after a member of its executive board admitted he took part in drug trafficking, armed robberies and at least one murder-for-hire scheme as a member of a racketeering organization that Miske controlled and directed.
Norman Lani Akau III appeared before a federal judge in Honolulu last month and pleaded guilty to a single count of having “willfully and knowingly” conspired with others in the Miske Enterprise to plan or carry out a series of crimes beginning at least by 2015 and continuing until his arrest.
At the time of his arrest last year, Akau, a camera and rigging grip who earned credits as a crew member on a number of movies and television series, was serving his third term as an elected at-large member of IATSE Local 665’s executive board.
Akau was also owner of an air conditioning company, Alii Air Inc., that was a vendor of portable air conditioning units used during television and movie productions, at the same time he was overseeing air-conditioning technicians while wearing his union hat.
There were rumors within the union that a member of the executive board was taking envelopes of cash in exchange for fast-tracking applications for union membership and jobs, and suspicion focused on Akau, according to several members, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. Payments were rumored to be as much as $20,000. Just months before his arrest, the matter was raised at an executive board meeting, and changes were made to the internal vetting process, reportedly over Akau’s objections.
Akau is the second defendant in the Miske case to plead guilty and begin cooperating with prosecutors. He now faces a maximum of 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in January.
Miske and eight remaining co-defendants named in the 22-count indictment are awaiting trial, now scheduled for March.
Akau’s guilty plea comes at an awkward time for the stagehands’ union, which is now undergoing a compliance audit being conducted by federal Office of Labor-Management Standards, the agency within the U.S. Department of Labor charged with setting and enforcing basic standards of democracy and financial integrity in labor organizations.
The audit, which reportedly began in March and is still underway, was first acknowledged by Tuiaʻana Scanlan, the union’s president, during a general membership meeting held via Zoom at the end of June, according to several union members.
Scanlan, a noted slam poet and stagehand, grip and rigger, is in the second year of a three-year term as Local 665 president. He confirmed the audit in an email response to questions this month.
Scanlan downplayed the significance of the audit, describing it as “routine,” and “not the result of any complaint, but simply because the Local has not been audited for quite some time.”
Compliance audits are used to verify that a union’s financial and administrative practices comply with the requirements of federal law, to assure union elections are conducted consistent with federal standards, to investigate potential violations of law and for other purposes, according to the Department of Labor website.
The fresh federal scrutiny of IATSE follows federal investigation and prosecution of other labor leaders over the past several years. The former business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260 and two family members are currently awaiting trial for embezzlement and conspiracy. The trial is scheduled to begin in October.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s former longshore division director is serving a 30-month sentence for identity theft and failure to file personal income tax returns.
The former business manager of Laborers Local 722 – Hawaii Electrical Workers was convicted of embezzlement in 2019, sentenced to an 18-month prison term and required to pay $185,000 in restitution.
And Civil Beat reported in October that a federal grand jury is probing financial matters within the 13,000-member United Public Workers, which represents state and county blue-collar workers, after the union’s director and financial administrator were ousted following a union audit.
Scanlan declined to comment on whether the audit was, at least in part, triggered by whispers of financial irregularities within the union, along with the unwanted attention brought to the union by Akau’s arrest and subsequent guilty plea.
However, late on the afternoon of July 16, 2020, less than 24 hours after Akau turned himself in to federal authorities, Robin Kekuewa Wong, then-Secretary-Treasurer of Local 665, received a telephone call from Pearl Moenahele, supervisor investigator for the Los Angeles District of the Office of Labor-Management Standards.
Wong later emailed her counterpart in the international union to report the unexpected contact from the Department of Labor, and to alert the parent union to the arrest of Akau, a Local 665 executive board member.
A copy of Wong’s email was among documents obtained by Civil Beat from several union sources.
Moenahele, who was senior investigator in the agency’s Honolulu office until 2014, asked to schedule a private conversation sometime the following day, according to Wong’s report.
Wong had been newly elected to a three-year term as secretary-treasurer which began in December 2019. Her duties included keeping “true and accurate records of all income, disbursements, assets and liabilities” of the local union.
The same day, Hawaii News Now broadcast an exclusive interview with Lindsey Kinney, an IATSE Local 665 member since September 2011, who also had ties to Miske until the two apparently had a falling out.
Kinney did not mention his IATSE affiliation during the interview, but the involvement of a second union member prompted Wong to make her report to General Secretary-Treasurer James B. Wood. He responded by advising that the union’s standard protocol was to include the local’s attorney in any meetings or telephone calls with the Department of Labor.
Kinney said during the interview that he became the target of a murder plot after turning down Miske’s offer of $50,000 to kill Jonathan Fraser, who Miske blamed for the death of his son, and later declining a second offer of $20,000 to remain silent.
Fraser disappeared on July 30, 2016. He was 21 years old. Miske has been charged with ordering his kidnapping and murder.
Kinney said his refusal of both offers made him “a loose end” that had to be eliminated.
In the HNN interview, Kinney said he had been working as a grip alongside Akau during the filming of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” at Kualoa Ranch in May 2017, when he was told Miske wanted to fight and was waiting in a nearby parking area.
Kinney said he walked over to meet Miske, but as he approached, two other men standing near Miske’s Mercedes sedan pulled out handguns and started firing. Several shots were fired, but Kinney was able to run from the scene without being injured.
“They took money over loyalty and respect.” — Union member Lindsey Kinney on co-workers he say plotted to kill him.
Later, in a video rant on Instagram, Kinney called out Miske, Akau, and another rigging grip working on the movie, Zeph Kimo Salis, along with Jacob “Jake” Smith, for having been planning the ambush at Kualoa for some time. At the time of the shooting, Salis was not yet an IATSE member, but was sworn in five months later.
“Zeph and Norman were dying to get on that table, dying,” Kinney said. “They took money over loyalty and respect.”
Miske and his half-brother, John Stancil, one of the shooters, are charged with assault and attempted murder in aid of racketeering for their role in the shooting.
Jake Smith, the second shooter, pleaded guilty in November 2020 and admitted being part of the Miske organization and taking part in the ambush at Kualoa.
Zeph Salis died in a motorcycle accident in Kaneohe just seven months later.
Akau pleaded guilty to being part of Miske’s racketeering organization.
Harry Kauhi, who prosecutors allege also accompanied Miske on the day of the Kualoa shooting but was not armed, is a co-defendant in the racketeering case.
Miske, Stancil and Kauhi have been drivers in the Movie Division of Teamster Local 996, “driving visiting stars and expensive equipment to and from cinema and television productions based in the islands,” Civil Beat reported last year. Local 996, which has its own history of organized crime ties, is considered something like a “cousin” union of IATSE, as it represents different types of jobs within the film industry.
It is not known whether federal investigation of the union extends beyond the current compliance audit by the Office of Labor-Management Standards, although the interest shown in Norman Akau’s union role makes that likely. Clearly, though, none of this is good news for IATSE Local 665 and its more than 580 members.
Akau’s guilty plea also has given new life to lingering questions about his eligibility to serve on the Local 665 executive board.
Akau was first elected to the board in 2013, and was reelected in 2016 and 2019.
A provision of the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act prohibits most felons, including those who, like Akau, were convicted of robbery, from holding union office for 13 years after their conviction or release from custody, whichever is later.
Akau was a convicted felon and still on parole when he filed to run for a seat on the union board. He had confessed to shooting a taxi driver with a sawed-off shotgun in a botched 1994 robbery when he was 21 years old. He was sentenced to 20 years in 1995, but earned an early release from prison in 2004, and became an IATSE member in May 2009, while still on parole. Akau’s co-defendent in the robbery, Gregory Nagao, received his union card a month later.
Questions were raised during the 2013 election about Akau’s eligibility, in light of his prior felony conviction, but those concerns were dismissed by the union’s leadership. Akau was deemed eligible to run for and hold a position on the executive board.
Union leaders apparently decided the 13-year waiting period did not apply to Akau because his “Order of Early Discharge” included a statement that Akau’s right to vote and hold public office had been automatically restored by Hawaii law on completion and final discharge from parole.
However, the provision of federal law in question specifies a reduction in the waiting period is only available if the person’s civil rights have been fully restored, something usually available only through a pardon. In Hawaii, some civil rights, including the right to serve on a jury and possess a firearm, continue to be denied convicted felons even after their discharge from parole.
Federal law provides that any person who willfully permits an ineligible convicted felon to hold union office can be fined up to $10,000 and face a five-year prison term.
It is unclear whether the union leaders at the time consulted with their attorney before determining Akau was eligible to sit on the executive board.
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