A jury found Brian Ahakuelo stole and laundered union money and raised dues against the will of members.

Brian Ahakuelo, the disgraced boss of a Honolulu electrical workers union, was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison after he was convicted of embezzlement and falsifying a union vote.

U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor handed down the 140-month sentence on Thursday as Ahakuelo stood in the courtroom in a white jumpsuit. The sentence is less than federal guidelines suggest due to Ahakuelo’s age, 62, and the low likelihood that he will commit a similar crime again, Gillmor said.

But it’s long enough to send a message to other people in a position of trust, the judge said.

“You need to tell these people that they are being watched and that even though it is very difficult to find fraud, when it is found, you will be punished,” she said.

Brian Ahakuelo leaves US District Court.
Brian Ahakuelo began his trial last year with confidence he would win, but a jury found him guilty on all counts. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

In a weeks-long trial last year, federal prosecutors detailed how the finances of Local 1260 nosedived after Ahakuelo took over as business manager and financial secretary. In 2010, the union had a surplus of approximately $700,000, Gillmor noted. Four years later, it had a deficit of some $760,000.

Prosecutors said Ahakuelo hired family members at salaries exceeding what union rules allowed. His wife, sister-in-law, son and his children’s spouses were all on the union’s payroll. Their pay contributed to the union’s salary expenses jumping by 150%, the judge said.

Ahakuelo was emboldened by an inexperienced executive board, handpicked by Ahakuelo himself, that literally and figuratively handed him signed blank checks to spend as he wished, Gillmor said. Ahakuelo was also able to make unilateral decisions on travel. On several occasions, he brought an unnecessary entourage of family members and other employees on trips with dubious connections to union needs.

Travel expenses skyrocketed 400% on Ahakuelo’s watch, the judge said.

When Local 1260’s funds started to dwindle, Ahakuelo orchestrated a fraudulent union vote in Guam to jack up union dues against the will of members. That’s according to four former employees who themselves pleaded guilty to participating in it and testified against Ahakuelo. In his own testimony, Ahakuelo denied involvement.

Overall, Ahakuelo created a work environment in which people were afraid to challenge him for fear of retaliation, Gillmor said.

A jury found Ahakuelo guilty of conspiracy, embezzlement, wire fraud and money laundering. The same jury convicted his wife, Marilyn Ahakuelo, of related charges. She was sentenced to nearly six years and is currently serving her time at a federal correctional facility in West Virginia. Marilyn’s sister who also worked for the union, Jennifer Estuncion, was found not guilty of all charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Albanese asked the judge to sentence Ahakuelo to 14 years. He said Ahakuelo’s actions caused lasting damage to the union. Citing a Civil Beat report on the union’s effort to rebuild in Ahakuelo’s wake, Albanese noted the financial impacts but also the loss of public trust in unions.

“I imagine that all of the state of Hawaii looks at unions a little bit differently after reading about this case in the press,” Albanese said. “So that’s a loss as well.”

In asking for leniency, Ahakuelo’s attorney, Caroline Elliot, described Ahakuelo as a family man who was involved in his community.

Albanese countered that Ahakuelo’s loyality to his family was precisely the problem.

“Yes, he would would put his family above everything else, but the problem is, when you’re in a position of trust — the fiduciary of the union — your love of your family does not authorize you to take members’ money and spend it on your family in inappropriate ways,” he said.

In an address to the court, Ahakuelo apologized for the “many mistakes” he’s made.

“Some of those mistakes have hurt other people, and as a flawed man I apologize and ask for forgiveness,” he said. “I pray to god every day that he will continue to bless and guide me in helping me to be a better person as I make amends to everyone I have harmed.”

In his statement, Ahakuelo did not admit to any of the actions for which he was convicted. He said he respected the jury verdict but did not agree with it. Outside the courthouse, Elliot told reporters that she plans to appeal the case.

Attorney Caroline Elliot said she plans to file an appeal in the case of Brian Ahakuelo, who was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for his misconduct related to his former union, Local 1260
Attorney Caroline Elliot said she plans to file an appeal on behalf of her client, Brian Ahakuelo. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

“Brian has maintained his innocence since this started four years ago,” she said. “It’s why he chose to go to trial last October.”

Elliot didn’t detail on what grounds the conviction or sentence could be reversed.

Ahakuelo has been incarcerated at the Honolulu Federal Detention Center since his conviction in November.

During the hearing, Elliot asked the judge to release Ahakuelo until the day he needs to report to prison, but Gillmor rejected the request. The judge noted that when Ahakuelo was on pretrial release, he was fired from a job as a box truck driver for damaging a company vehicle and failing to report an accident. At a second job as a delivery driver, he was accused of package theft, the judge said.

“These are not things that create faith in his responsibility,” Gillmor said.

Ahakuelo requested to serve out his sentence in either Pensacola, Florida or Montgomery, Alabama.

At the conclusion of his prison sentence, Ahakuelo will be on supervised release for three years, Gillmor ordered. In addition, Ahakuelo will have to pay more than $209,000 in restitution and a $6,800 special assessment.

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