Federal prosecutors said Marilyn Ahakuelo enjoyed an inflated salary and first-class travel on the union’s dime.

A Honolulu woman who was convicted alongside her husband for embezzling from a local union and helping to fraudulently increase membership dues was sentenced on Tuesday to nearly six years in prison.

Marilyn Ahakuelo was found guilty in November of conspiracy, wire fraud, and embezzlement from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260, a shop once headed by her husband, Brian Ahakuelo. She is scheduled to surrender to authorities on May 17. 

Marilyn Ahakuelo was sentenced in federal court on Tuesday as family and friends sat in the gallery, some in tears. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

A jury found that as an employee of the union, Marilyn Ahakuelo conspired with her husband to falsify a dues increase vote in January 2015. She also used union funds to pay for travel that had little, if any, union purpose, including first-class flights. Marilyn was one of several of Brian Ahakuelo’s family members who were on the union’s payroll, and she earned over $100,000 a year for mainly clerical work. 

In remarks to the court, Ahakuelo said she accepted the jury’s verdict and was “sorry for everything that has happened,” but she did not admit to the specific events for which she was convicted. 

In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor noted that the Ahakuelos caused real harm – a $3 million hole in the union’s finances – but that Marilyn Ahakuelo had failed to take ownership for her actions. 

“The amount of money that has gone through this family is a huge amount of money, and I’d like to think that there was some recognition of that,” Gillmor said from the bench. 

Brian Ahakuelo leaves US District Court.
Brian Ahakuelo, former business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260, is being held at the Honolulu Federal Detention Center awaiting sentencing. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

But the judge said she has not seen any “recognition of wrongfulness.” In fact, in the time since the Ahakuelos’ 2019 indictment, Marilyn purchased a 2021 Mercedes even as she relied on the services of a taxpayer-funded attorney, Gillmor said. 

“Accepting the jury verdict is appropriate, but there doesn’t look like there has been a change in attitude,” the judge said.

In asking for a sentence of about six to seven years, prosecutors argued that Marilyn Ahakuelo was a key player in her husband’s crimes, as well as a main beneficiary. 

“The offense in this case caused great harm to a labor organization that has responsibility for approximately 3,000 members in Hawaii and Guam,” prosecutors said in a sentencing memo.

“The defendant was motivated primarily by greed, to live a ‘first class’ lifestyle at the expense of the members’ interests.”

Prosecutors asked the court to “send a message that any participation in such a scheme that results in financial or reputational harm to a local labor union will result in significant punishment.”

Ahakuelo’s lawyer, Rebecca Lester, asked the court for either probation or six months of imprisonment. Marilyn Ahakuelo has no prior criminal history, she noted. 

Evidence presented at trial showed that Marilyn’s login and password were used to change union meeting minutes related to a dues increase, but Lester characterized that as circumstantial. 

To the extent that financial improprieties occurred, Marilyn Ahakuelo wouldn’t have knowledge of them, Lester argued. 

“The Government provided no direct testimony that Marilyn was aware of any of the financial aspects of the Local 1260 nor was aware of the financial operations or accounts of the Local 1260,” Lester wrote in her sentencing memo. 

“The closest thing Marilyn had to any of the Local 1260 finances was being married to the business manager. Marilyn should not be punished or penalized because she is married to Brian.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Albanese challenged that, noting that Marilyn’s Local 1260 salary was higher than she’d ever made previously and more than she’s made since. 

“Every time she saw her paycheck and knew the kind of work she was doing, she knew something was wrong,” he said. “It didn’t match up. “

Gillmor agreed. 

“I don’t believe it’s possible to take the position she didn’t know what was going on,” the judge said. 

In addition to the prison time, Ahakuelo will have to serve three years of supervised release and pay $7,967.90 in restitution, a $10,000 fine and a special assessment of $4,600, Gillmor said. Ahakuelo requested to serve her time in either Alderson, West Virginia or Bryan, Texas. The location will be determined at a later date.

Ahakuelo, her attorney and prosecutors all declined to comment after the sentence was handed down.

Meanwhile, Brian Ahakuelo is being held at the Honolulu Federal Detention Center awaiting his own sentencing hearing on June 20. 

Former Local 1260 employees Michael Brittain, Daniel Rose, Lee Ann Miyamura, and Russell Yamanoha pleaded guilty to helping to falsify the dues increase vote and helped the prosecution. Each of those individuals received a sentence of probation, a fine and community service. 

Jennifer Estencion, Marilyn Ahakuelo’s sister, was charged for alleged involvement in the vote-rigging scheme but was acquitted at trial.

Outside the courthouse, Leroy Chincio, Local 1260’s current business manager, said justice had been served.

“Now is the time you have to pay the price,” he said.

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