About 11,000 members of the United Public Workers union in Hawaii begin voting this weekend to select new leadership at a pivotal time when the influential union is under federal investigation for alleged financial irregularities.

Longtime UPW State Director Dayton Nakanelua was removed last year after a scathing financial audit and a trial held by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and AFSCME appointed Liz Ho as a temporary administrator of the union.

Ho declined to discuss the election, but in a July 22 letter to the unions’ national leadership she reported that the voting in the weeks ahead is a critical step on a path that will allow the union to emerge from administratorship.

Ho said in the letter she has been focused on establishing new financial management procedures to correct irregularities that were revealed in the 2019 audit, and reported she may recommend an end to the union administratorship by early next year.

United Public Workers union building Kalihi UPW1. 13 nov 2016
The United Public Workers headquarters on Oahu. The union election now underway marks the first time all UPW members have been able to cast votes to select the new state director. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The union election is also notable because it will mark the first time the UPW Local 646 general membership has been allowed to vote directly to select a new state director, which is required under the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959.

UPW selected both Nakanelua and former state director Gary Rodrigues in elections that were limited to delegates at state conventions, but AFSCME President Lee Saunders last summer advised Ho that federal law requires the full membership be allowed to vote on who will lead the union.

UPW Local 646 represents blue-collar state and county workers such as parks, highway and building maintenance employees, and also represents state corrections officers along with workers at both private and public hospitals.

Historically the UPW has been a force to be reckoned with in Hawaii politics, and its support and endorsements are sought-after prizes for local politicians during election season.

Rodrigues was so well connected politically that he helped select state judges as a member of the state Judicial Selection Commission, and helped to redraw the boundaries of Hawaii’s legislative districts as a member of the state Reapportionment Commission.

But Rodrigues eventually became the target of a federal investigation, and was convicted in 2002 of conspiracy, embezzling union money, money laundering and health care fraud. He served more than four years in federal prison and also paid $378,000 in restitution to the union in that case.

Nakanelua worked closely with Rodrigues for years, and succeeded him as state director. But the 2019 AFSCME audit found what Saunders described as “abuse and misuse of union funds.” One example cited in the audit was spending by Nakanelua on a union credit card that included $26,659 for meals during a two-year period.

The union trial decision found that Nakanelua was responsible as state director for all union financial matters, but “there does not appear to be meaningful oversight on how UPW funds are spent or accounted for.”

The decision added: “The opportunity for abuse or misuse of union funds existed as a result, and it has occurred.”

In the spring of 2020, federal investigators subpoenaed thousands of pages of UPW union records as part of an inquiry that involved the U.S. Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service and the state Attorney General’s Office.

Ho has said the union complied with the demands for records, which included union credit card documentation, records related to a planned documentary film, and financial records detailing  arrangements between the union and law firms that represent UPW in grievances, arbitrations and litigation.

John Witeck 

John Witeck, a longtime labor activist who worked for the UPW from 1972 until 1997, said a high-profile disaster such as Rodrigues’ criminal conviction or the accusations against Nakanelua “destroys membership’s trust in their union leadership.”

“The membership tends to be more apathetic about what’s going on, and it becomes cynical about the role of the union,” he said.

While other unions such as Unite Here Local 5 have tried to mobilize members to fight for their interests, “the UPW seems to many of the members, I think, to have been inactive or fairly passive, and the leadership did not really go out to try to mobilize them for anything,” Witeck said.

“And then when you read about misappropriation of money, or the kinds of things that Rodrigues did, it can really sap your will or your feeling of involvement in the union,” he said. “The members, I think,  have come to see the union as a sort of a service station — you know, when you get in trouble you go there for help. But they don’t see it as their organization.”

Witeck said placing the union in administratorship is a step in the right direction, and said it is a positive sign that a number of candidates stepped up to run to replace Nakanelua as state director.

“It is some evidence that people do care, and are willing to put in some effort,” he said. “I think it’s an encouraging sign that there are candidates, and they seem invested enough in the union to try to make a difference. I wish them all well.”

The union had about three dozen employees and an operating budget of about $11.4 million in 2019, according to its most recent filing with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Eight candidates are seeking the position of state director formerly held by Nakanelua, who was paid more than $178,000 in 2019.

Those candidates are Shawn Colotario, Anthony Takayoshi Carvalho, Pati Faavae, Rambeau Gahan, Alton Nosaka, Richard Okuda, James Wataru and Kalani Werner.

The four candidates for president of the union — which is an unpaid position — are Robert Baltazar, Lorena Kashiwamura, TK Wehrsig and Darrell C. Wilcox.

Candidates for secretary-treasurer of the union are Clarence C. Kaipo III, Junior Moananu, Gordon Leslie, and Wyatt Lee.

Other local leadership slots for Oahu and the neighbor islands will also be on the ballots.

Members will soon begin receiving voting instructions in the mail, and ballots are set to be counted on Dec. 7. Voting will be via phone or computer, with each member using a unique code to vote.

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