A former County Council chairman and Big Island mayoral candidate pleaded guilty today to embezzlement of more than $38,000 from AmeriCorps and of offering a bribe in return for grants under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Higa pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to one count each of embezzlement and bribery. Both charges carry maximum sentences of 10 years in prison and monetary penalties. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, Higa faces a likely range of between 46 and 57 months in prison and a fine of up to $200,000.
The plea agreement requires him to pay $38,642 in restitution to AmeriCorps and an identical amount in a forfeiture money judgment.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton scheduled sentencing for Jan. 13.
“This defendant has admitted taking money from programs that were designed to help the most vulnerable Americans,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips. “The United States Department of Justice will aggressively prosecute and seek to hold accountable those individuals who choose to abuse their positions of power to enrich themselves at the cost of the American people.”
AmeriCorps Inspector General Deborah Jeffrey said Higa repeatedly “betrayed his neighbors, the people of Hawaii, and American taxpayers to serve his greed and vanity by embezzling funds set aside to help communities in need.”
AmeriCorps is a federally funded network of national service programs that address critical community needs like increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks, preparing for disasters, and more. AmeriCorps’ national service members commit to service for a set period, usually a year, in exchange for a living allowance, funding to be used for college tuition, and other benefits.
While general manager and CEO of Na Leo public television in Hilo, Higa admitted to offering financial benefits to Hanalei Aipoalani, who was hired in August 2020 as Honolulu City and County’s Department of Community Service’s CARES program administrator. From August through October 2020, Higa offered to provide financial benefits to Aipoalani in order to influence the approval of Higa’s applications for two grants totaling $845,000 under the CARES Act. Higa then directed an employee to draft and submit false and backdated invoices under the grants. Higa and Aipoalani discussed opening limited liability corporations on Oahu and using their wives as principals in order to launder the money. As part of his plea agreement, Higa admitted to expecting to receive at least $250,000 in profit from the CARES Act funds.
Aipoalani, 42, of Waianae, Oahu, separately pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to embezzling from AmeriCorps and agreeing to accept a bribe under the CARES Act. Aipoalani was sentenced on June 30 to 46 months in prison and ordered to pay over $532,730 in restitution to AmeriCorps.
“Our communities place great trust and responsibility in our public figures. Stacy Higa ultimately betrayed this trust when he abused his power to embezzle federal funds and participate in bribery,” said Steven Merrill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Honolulu Field Office.