Na Leo CEO Higa to go on leave following allegations of fraud, bribery in federal court

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Na Leo TV in Hilo on Monday, March 29, 2021.

  • HIGA

The president and CEO of Na Leo ‘O Hawaii public access television will be placed on a leave of absence after allegations were made against him in a federal plea agreement by a former associate.

According to a statement from Na Leo, the nonprofit corporation’s board agreed to allow Stacy K. Higa, a former County Council chairman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate last year, to take a leave of absence from his position, effective this Thursday.

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The statement said the leave would allow the 57-year-old Higa “to address these allegations while limiting any interference or disruption to Na Leo ‘O Hawaii’s operations.”

The statement said the public access TV outlet “is continuing its normal day-to-day operations.”

Hanalei Aipoalani, a 42-year-old Waianae, Oahu, resident has pleaded guilty to federal charges of embezzlement and bribery. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on June 24. Aipoalani was a paid senior adviser to Higa at Na Leo from January 2015 to early 2017, according to the plea agreement.

Higa, was not specifically named in the court document, but referred to as “Conspirator 1.” He became president and CEO of Na Leo after its June 2016 board meeting. Prior to that, he was the television outlet’s general manager.

According to the plea document, Aipoalani — the former human resources director for Olelo Community Media on Oahu — admitted to embezzling more than $500,000 in federal AmeriCorps funds from the Oahu company.

He told federal prosecutors he laundered more than $97,000 of AmeriCorps funding through Na Leo — which wasn’t entitled to receive those funds. According to the feds, $69,000 of that money ended up in a joint bank account controlled by Aipoalani and his wife, Angelita Aipoalani.

The document states Aipoalani also set up a scheme late last year with Higa for Na Leo and another, unnamed company controlled by Higa, to apply for federal coronavirus relief funds from the City and County of Honolulu — which were administered by Aipoalani in a temporary-hire position. In exchange for Aipoalani’s influence to approve the documents, he would be hired as a contractor part-time as a “project manager.”

The two companies filed in September 2020 for a total of about $845,000 in federal relief funds claiming fraudulent expenses not incurred by either company, according to the agreement. The document doesn’t state if Na Leo or the other company received any coronavirus relief funds.

Na Leo’s Hilo offices and studios were raided by the FBI in early October 2020, and the feds charged Aipoalani in December.

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See Tuesday’s edition of the Tribune-Herald for a complete story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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