A jury heard opening statements on Friday in the trial of Brian Ahakuelo, the former Honolulu union leader who is accused of embezzlement and helping to rig a union vote to enrich himself and his family. 

Federal prosecutor William KeAupuni Akina said Ahakuelo, his wife Marilyn Ahakuelo and his sister-in-law Jennifer Estencion used the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260 as their “personal piggybank.” They defrauded union members of over $3 million, he said. 

Defense attorneys presented an alternate narrative of a hardworking family dedicated to the union and said there was a lack of evidence to prove the government’s charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Brian Ahakuelo leaves US District Court.
Brian Ahakuelo, his wife Marilyn Ahakuelo, center left, and sister-in-law Jennifer Estencion appeared in a Honolulu court to face charges of embezzlement and helping to rig a union vote. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“The evidence is going to show the defendants abused their positions at Local 1260,” Akina said in his opening remarks. “They rigged a labor union vote, misused funds. They chose themselves over the membership.”

Ahakuelo reported to a board that was supposed to approve or deny expenditures, but he stacked it with loyalists who acted as a rubber stamp and “literally signed blank checks for him,” according to Akina.

“A lot of them didn’t know what their jobs were,” Akina said. “So they relied on Brian Ahakuelo.” 

It’s not in dispute that Ahakuelo hired family members – including his wife, sister-in-law, son, daughter-in-law and son-in-law – some of whom were making six-figure salaries. At one point, Akina said Ahakuelo’s family was collecting 10% of all Local 1260’s revenue, according to the prosecution.

Under Ahakuelo, spending on travel increased, including trips to Japan and another that “literally went around the world” for himself and his entourage, according to Akina. They flew first class, he said, and not all activities involved union business. 

Ahakuelo also sold the union hall and used the proceeds to rent and renovate swanky office space downtown, Akina said. Ahakuelo gave himself an office with an ocean view, the prosecutor said. And the family sold Marilyn Ahakuelo’s truck to the union, collecting the proceeds while only allowing family members to drive it after the sale, according to Akina.

The prosecution will rely on four key witnesses who have pleaded guilty to helping rig a union vote in Guam: Daniel Rose, Michael Brittain, Lee-Ann Miyamura and Russell Yamanoha. Those witnesses will testify that Ahakuelo directed them to rig the vote to increase union dues, Akina said.

Ahakuelo, Akina said, “called the shots.”

Federal Building and US Courthouse.
The trial is scheduled to last several weeks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Louis Michael Ching, who represents Brian Ahakuelo, opened his remarks with an emphasis on reasonable doubt. If reasonable doubt exists, he said, “whether you like it not, favor him or not, you must acquit him.”

Ching went on to allege that two union elections were rigged not by his client but via a conspiracy by the international office of the IBEW and the witnesses who pleaded guilty. He said federal investigators failed to pursue that angle.

“Bluntly put, they are not a clean organization. The international is corrupted by two things: power and money,” Ching said of the IBEW. “The investigators were listening to the actual criminals who were more than happy to point at Brian Ahakuelo.”

Ching pointed blame at international representative Harold Dias, whom he said the international office “uses to do their unclean work.” In an interview with Civil Beat last week, Dias called Ahakuelo’s accusations “ludicrous.”

When it comes to Ahakuelo’s spending decisions, Ching suggested they were justified.

“When you walk in with an entourage, they see success,” he said. “If they see a better office, they want be a part of you. If they see you driving a nicer car, they’re impressed … It’s the way of human nature. It’s the way of business.”

Rebecca Lester, Marilyn Ahakuelo’s attorney, described her client as a “local girl” from Wahiawa who was a “hardworking, dedicated employee for Local 1260.” 

“Everything she did was for the best interest of the union,” Lester said.

Estencion’s lawyer, Randy Hironaka, said his client took no part in the rigged union vote in Guam. She was present, he said, but did not participate in creating fake ballots and was not even aware that was happening. 

“Jennifer was not involved in all this union politics,” he said. 

The witnesses who say otherwise made deals with the government to testify against the defendants, he said.

“You’re going to see they have major credibility problems,” he said.

The trial is scheduled to run Tuesday through Friday for the next several weeks.

An Important Note

If you consider nonprofit, independent news to be an essential service that helps keep our community informed, please include Civil Beat among your year-end contributions.

And for those who can, consider supporting us with a monthly gift, which helps keep our content free for those who need it most.

This year, we are making it our goal to raise $225,000 in reader support by December 31, to support our news coverage statewide and throughout the Pacific. Are you ready to help us continue this work?

About the Author