Brian Ahakuelo says he dedicated his life to advocating for better pay and working conditions for members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

As head of IBEW Local 1260 for five years, he said he worked to bolster relationships with employers and the community, get the best possible deals for workers and protect the financial health of the union itself. 

At the same time, federal prosecutors say he was robbing the very workers he claimed to be fighting for. 

Brian Ahakuelo leaves US District Court.
Brian Ahakuelo’s trial begins on Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Ahakuelo will go on trial on Thursday for conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and embezzlement alongside his wife and sister-in-law, who were also employed by the union. 

In court filings, prosecutors describe a brazen abuse of power by a union leader and a stunning display of greed by a man accused of using union funds as a piggy bank for himself and his family. The feds say the family charged numerous personal expenses to the union and, when funds started to dwindle, rigged a union vote to raise dues against the wishes of the members. 

Ahakuelo and his family members have pleaded not guilty, and he said they all plan to take the stand.

“It’s not true,” Ahakuelo said of the criminal charges in an interview with Civil Beat last week. “Some of the stuff will be, maybe, morally incorrect … However, it’s not criminal.” 

In his testimony, Ahakuelo hopes to convince jurors that he was a victim of a conspiracy to unseat him led by people who were jealous and felt threatened by him. He declined to identify those supposed actors before the trial.  

HECO HEI Hawaiian Electric power plant located along Ala Moana Boulevard.
Local 1260 represents nearly 3,000 members, including linemen for Hawaiian Electric. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“I believe that the people of Hawaii who are going to be sitting as jurors are going to see that we have done nothing wrong, that this was a total conspiracy, starting from the mainland, and coming back down here,” he said. 

The trial is the culmination of over a decade of accusations against the former union boss. 

In 2012, Ahakuelo was sued by a former union employee, Tommy Decano, who criticized Ahakuelo’s hiring of his wife and his “lavish spending” of union funds for new furniture, cars and airfare. Those accusations came only a year after Ahakuelo became business manager and financial secretary of the union in 2011.

Decano also alleged the union leader ordered the killing of people he didn’t like. Ahakuelo categorically denies the allegation, and a Honolulu police investigation into the claim was closed for a lack of evidence. Decano’s lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, and Decano died in 2019. Ahakuelo said the union only had to pay Decano’s legal fees.

Ahakuelo stayed in his position with Local 1260 until he was forced out in 2016. That’s when the union says it discovered his alleged financial improprieties, put the union under a trusteeship and alerted law enforcement.  

The decision to remove Ahakuelo, who was elected by unions members, was not taken lightly, according to Harold Dias, an international representative for the IBEW. 

“It has to be something truly egregious for that to happen,” Dias said. 

Ahakuelo, his wife and his sister-in-law were indicted in 2019. 

The upcoming trial will provide a rare look behind the curtain of one of Hawaii’s unions, which hold significant political power in the most unionized state in the country. More than 20% of Hawaii’s workers are members of unions, putting their leaders in charge of millions of dollars in dues. They’re also mired in internal politics, which Ahakuelo said was the real cause of his undoing. 

But Dias said the idea that there was a conspiracy to unseat Ahakuelo is “ludicrous.” 

“Brian likes to make outlandish claims that people were jealous or afraid of him,” Dias said. “That’s just nonsense.” 

‘Target On My Back’

Ahakuelo worked in the islands’ utility industry and on behalf of the IBEW for over three decades. 

Raised in Pearl City, he followed in the footsteps of his father, Norman Ahakuelo, who was also a business manager for the electrical workers union. 

Former IBEW business manager Brian Ahakuelo, right, pictured with his father Norman Ahakuelo, Richard Oyama and Jesse Jackson.
Former IBEW business manager Brian Ahakuelo (right), pictured with his father Norman Ahakuelo (left), Richard Oyama and Jesse Jackson at a union function in the 1990s. Courtesy: Brian Ahakuelo

Brian Ahakuelo is also the grandson of Benjamin Ahakuelo, one of the Hawaiian men falsely accused of rape in the infamous Thalia Massie case of the 1930s – a story of injustice that Brian Ahakuelo feels bears similarities to his own. 

In his 2017 memoir “The Demise Of Labor,” Ahakuelo wrote that he grew up in the union hall. 

A Maryknoll High School graduate, Ahakuelo began his career with Hawaiian Electric in the 1980s. But his father later asked him to come to work for Local 1260, and he did in 1992, according to his memoir. He became a representative for the union in Hawaii and in Guam. 

In the early 2000s, he was the primary organizer of a major union win: 900 Raytheon employees on Guam. That success made him a “threat,” Ahakuelo said. 

“Guam had put me on the map, and eventually led to a target on my back,” he wrote in his memoir. 

Throughout the 2000s, he took on leadership roles in the union at the regional and international levels, and even moved to Washington, D.C. to work at its headquarters there. However, he ultimately got fired by former IBEW President Ed Hill after years of tension and disagreements, Ahakuelo wrote in his book. 

After that, he returned to Hawaii. In July 2011, he unseated the incumbent Lance Miyake to become the business manager and financial secretary for IBEW Local 1260.

In his book, he wrote that he took great pride in doing his job well. 

“The motto would be ‘Every Member Matters’ and it would be the guiding principle of every action I took while business manager,” he wrote. “It was a vision of empowering others toward self-determination by helping them to believe in their own value and purpose.” 

Ahakuelo’s newfound stature landed him and his family in some prominent positions. 

In 2012, then-city councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard appointed Ahakuelo to the Honolulu Salary Commission, which determines the paychecks for the mayor, City Council members and others. 

And his son, Brandon Ahakuelo, was appointed to the Hawaii Land Use Commission in 2014 by then-governor Neil Abercrombie. 

Increased Dues Despite Opposition

Almost immediately after Ahakuelo took office, there were problems, according to federal prosecutors. 

Ahakuelo was at odds with the union’s board, whose members were allegedly loyal to his predecessor and “couldn’t stand me,” Ahakuelo wrote in his book. At first, Ahakuelo said he couldn’t issue a single check without the board’s blessing. 

“The board took great satisfaction in denying every expenditure, regardless of the size of the purchase or the rationale behind it,” he said. 

Eventually, Ahakuelo started making “modest” purchases on his own and asking for permission after the fact, he wrote. When the board objected, Ahakuelo started dragging out board meetings so long that the board would be “willing to approve the purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge if it meant they could get out of there and head over to the bar next door,” he wrote. 

“Under the 1260’s bylaws, I could keep them there until 11 p.m. and I made sure every moment was as unpleasant as posible – no air conditioning, no food and worst of all, no drink,” he wrote. “It was the labor’s equivalent of a filibuster and it worked.” 

Soon after, board members started quitting, and they were replaced by Ahakuelo’s allies, he wrote. 

“After more than a year in office, I felt like I was finally in business,” he wrote. 

In his first year, union expenses increased $500,000, and rose another $400,000 the year after that, much of it due to salary and wage increases, according to prosecutors’ trial brief. 

Ahakuelo hired his wife Marilyn and sister-in-law Jennifer Estencion as clerks and his son, Brandon Ahakuelo, as a business representative. Brandon’s wife Neiani was also on staff. 

In his telling, Ahakuelo had trouble hiring competent staff and hired his family because he knew he could trust them to do the job. All of them had relevant experience, he said, and the union had no rules against nepotism.

Brian Ahakulo hired his son, Brandon Ahakuelo (pictured here), at Local 1260. Office of the Governor

“The fact was, labor was often a family business, passed down from generation to generation, and that included several of my accusers,” he wrote in his book.

“My decision to hire those closest to me was not just ideological, but practical. There was no way I could keep Local 1260 going with the staff I had, and I knew my family members would work as hard as I did to get the job done.” 

Estencion, Ahakuelo’s sister-in-law, declined to be interviewed for this story. 

Teresa Morrison, who worked under Ahakuelo as an attorney for the union in 2011 and 2012, said there was something she describes as Trumpian about her former boss. 

“An answer for everything, the ‘I’m untouchable’ kind of attitude, like if you just do as I say, then this is going to be fine – that whole thing,” she said. “Then, when confronted with truth, (he) decides to somehow disparage your name.” 

Morrison said she resigned after Ahakuelo falsely accused her of spreading rumors about him. 

The increased spending caused an operating deficit and cut the union’s assets by more than half by the end of 2012, according to prosecutors. 

The feds say Ahakuelo also sold the union hall – which Miyake said was named after Ahakuelo’s father – and used the proceeds for unauthorized expenses. 

“Following the completion of the sale, Brian Ahakuelo did none of the things that he promised with the money,” prosecutors’ trial brief says. 

The income from the sale allowed Ahakuelo to lease office space in the Topa Financial Center on Bishop Street, he wrote. In his office, Ahakuelo hung a picture of Jimmy Hoffa, the controversial former leader of the Teamsters who was connected to organized crime and served time in prison before his 1975 disappearance. 

“He’d stood firmly on the side of the working man and understood that organizing was the lifeblood of the labor movement,” Ahakuelo wrote. “The fact that he eventually lost his way did not change that.” 

Ahakuelo then sought to raise union dues, which at the time were about 1.5% of hourly wages. He proposed dues of 3% by April 2015, 3.5% by April 2017 and 4% by April 2019, prosecutors said. The plan was approved by the executive board, which by then had been stacked with Ahakuelo’s allies, he wrote in his book. Then it was submitted to the union membership for a vote. 

It was immediately apparent that the proposal was “very unpopular,” prosecutors said, especially with the unit that was made up largely of HECO employees. 

But according to prosecutors: “Failure was not an option for Brian Ahakuelo.”

Without the dues increases, the union would need to drastically reduce spending, possibly by cutting employees, or it would go belly up within a few years, the trial brief said. 

That’s when prosecutors say Ahakuelo, his wife, sister-in-law and others engaged in a conspiracy to run fraudulent elections to approve the union dues increase. 

For Unit 4, made up of television workers and the staff of the union itself, the defendants are accused of creating fake attendance sheets, falsifying votes and making up minutes for a meeting that never happened, prosecutors said.

Ahakuelo acknowledged that the attendance sheets were “not correct” but said that was the fault of someone else, not him or his family. 

Russell Yamanoha HNN
Former Local 1260 employee Russell Yamanoha pleaded guilty to helping rig an IBEW union election in Guam. Hawaii News Now

But it still wasn’t enough to approve the dues increase because all the other bargaining units taken together had voted against the proposal, according to prosecutors. 

The defendants needed a landslide in the final vote in Unit 9, the trial brief says. 

To make it happen, the feds say Ahakuelo and his accomplices traveled to Guam. In a hotel meeting area, prosecutors say Ahakuelo and Estencion helped to fill out hundreds of ballots, marking the majority as “yes” votes. They were allegedly joined by union staffers Daniel Rose, Michael Brittain, Lee-Ann Miyamura and Russell Yamanoha, a former TV sportscaster who would later become a spokesman for the Honolulu rail project. 

At a union meeting that evening, Ahakuelo told the Guam union members that the dues increase would only apply to Hawaii members – something he failed to mention to Hawaii members, according to the feds. Then, the defendants allegedly collected the genuine votes and swapped them out for the fake ones. 

“When the fraudulent ballots were tallied, the resolution passed 293 to 32,” prosecutors said. 

Rose later disposed of the real ballots in a park near their hotel.

“Within weeks, the dues increase was made official, and LU1260 employers began to withhold the increased dues from employee paychecks,” prosecutors said. “Unbeknownst to the Hawaii members, the dues of the Guam members never increased.” 

Rose, Brittain, Yamanoha and Miyamura – the latter of whom Ahakuelo described in his book as “like family” – have all pleaded guilty to helping rig the vote and have agreed to help the prosecution.

Brian and Marilyn Ahakuelo said they did not take part in the fraudulent election. 

“We had nothing to do with it,” he said. 

“If you read the charges, it sounds like a soap opera. It sounds like, oh my god, this must be like the Gambino family. We’re the farthest thing from it.” 

Pricey Trips, Allegedly Paid For By Fraud

According to prosecutors, though, the alleged scheme paid off.

Union revenue nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015, and in turn, Ahakuelo increased his spending on himself and his family, prosecutors said. 

He raised his own salary to nearly $200,000 in 2015, approximately $18,000 above the cap in the union’s bylaws, according to the feds. His hired family members were also paid in excess of union salary limits, prosecutors said. Ahakuelo disputes that the salaries exceeded the limits. 

Downtown Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget casino along Fremont Street.
Local 1260 paid for travel to Las Vegas that wasn’t entirely work-related, federal prosecutors said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Ahakuelo’s son-in-law, Eric Falkner, was paid a six-figure salary and a $400 per month car allowance even though prosecutors say he lived in Las Vegas and did “very little real work for the union.” Ahakuelo said Falkner was developing the curriculum for a union training program remotely. 

In all, prosecutors said the Ahakuelo family received nearly $630,000 from the union in 2015 – more than 10% of the union’s gross revenue. 

Ahakuelo and his family also enjoyed trips around the world on the union’s dime, prosecutors said. 

In November 2015, he flew himself and 17 members of the staff and executive board – including his family – to Japan and Guam. The union covered the $85,000 bill for travel and accommodations, including first-class airfare. 

The trip was ostensibly aimed at meeting with Japanese representatives of the Hawaii International Film Association in Tokyo and attending a member appreciation event in Guam. However, the majority of the group’s time in Tokyo was spent touring, prosecutors said. Only a few of the travelers attended the only business engagement on the agenda, a single dinner. 

Ahakuelo wrote in his book that the trip was “a great success” that created more work for freelance photojournalists and other Hawaii International Film Association workers in Local 1260. 

In March 2016, union dollars paid for Ahakuelo and nine staff members – including his wife, son and sister-in-law – to go on a multi-city trip including Macau, an autonomous region of China, and Las Vegas. 

“While some of the travelers had legitimate business at some of the stops, the overall scope of the trip was not justified, and there was no union purpose to the visit to Macau,” prosecutors said.   

Ahakuelo told Civil Beat the Macau trip was supposed to include a business engagement but an incompetent staff member neglected to schedule it and didn’t inform him until they arrived there. 

Brian Ahakuelo HNN photo
Ahakuelo said he and his family have done nothing wrong. HNN

In Las Vegas, Ahakuelo and his son and others left a conference early and spent almost $600 at a cigar-and-whiskey bar, prosecutors said. 

Ahakuelo is accused of instructing one of his employees to write the name of a union official on the receipt to justify the expense and charge it to the union’s credit card. Ahakuelo denies this. 

Prosecutors said Ahakuelo even used union funds to pay off the loan on his wife’s truck, an approximately $24,000 expense. Ahakuelo says the union purchased the truck from his family for legitimate purposes. 

By May 2016, Ahakuelo was removed from his position after the union received complaints from staff about the inappropriate use of union funds. 

“They were angry because they lost everything,” Miyake said of the union members. 

A union investigation found numerous violations, including some that are now part of Ahakuelo’s criminal indictment. He was found guilty by the union in an administrative process that Ahakuelo did not attend to defend himself. 

“I could only be grateful that my father wasn’t there to witness it,” Ahakuelo wrote in his book. 

When the union’s findings came out, Ahakuelo proclaimed his innocence. 

“It was a witch hunt on me because there was a concern that I was getting too popular,” he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. 

‘The Ship Has Been Righted’

Ahakuelo and his co-defendants have tried to get the criminal charges dismissed to no avail. 

In court filings last year, they claimed without evidence that IBEW’s international representatives worked with local staff to rig the union election and blame it on Ahakuelo and his family. They also alleged that the U.S. Department of Labor condoned it. 

When it comes to the union money used for personal use, the defendants said it was the “custom” of the union to book reservations for personal travel and then have employees reimburse the union – which they said they did. (Asked about the alleged practice, Dias said that is “absolutely not” true.)

In court, the defendants submitted copies of checks made out from their accounts to the union for reimbursements of personal expenses and argued there was no crime committed for those counts in the indictment. 

Brian and Marilyn Ahakuelo said they reimbursed IBEW Local 1260 for personal expenses charged to the union's account. But prosecutors say the checks were never deposited.
Brian and Marilyn Ahakuelo said they reimbursed IBEW Local 1260 for personal expenses charged to the union’s account. But prosecutors say the checks were never deposited. U.S. District Court/2021

The defendants asserted that the entire case should be dismissed due to “prosecutorial misconduct.” 

Prosecutors countered that the union’s bank statements don’t show any reimbursement for the funds the defendants allegedly embezzled. In other words, if checks were submitted to the union, they hadn’t been deposited. 

The defendants ultimately withdrew their attempt to get the case thrown out. 

Since Ahakuelo was removed from his position, Local 1260 is doing “fantastic,” Dias said. The union returned over $3 million to the members for the fraudulent dues increase, he said, and also sold a beachfront home on Kauai that Ahakuelo had purchased with union funds, ostensibly for union members. 

“The ship has been righted,” he said. “They’re on solid financial ground, elected new leadership who is doing a terrific job moving the local forward. The process worked how it’s supposed to work.” 

Ahakuelo’s predecessor, Miyake, questioned why the international union didn’t catch on to Ahakuelo’s alleged schemes sooner, especially when dues were raised in Hawaii but not Guam – a violation of the union’s own rules. 

“They should’ve caught it,” he said. 

Today, Ahakuelo’s successor at Local 1260 is earning more than he was – $226,624 according to the union’s latest disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor. And Ahakuelo believes they’re worse off without him. 

“Everything we did was for the members, for the members’ benefit,” he said. “Not for us.”

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