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Former Nā Leo TV CEO, Politician Sentenced to Nearly 4 Years in Prison

By Tom Hasslinger
February 22, 2022, 3:16 PM HST
* Updated February 22, 3:24 PM
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A former public official from Hilo, mayoral candidate and television station executive was sentenced in federal court Tuesday, Feb. 22, to 46 months in prison for embezzling federal funds and for offering a bribe in return for grants under the pandemic-relief CARES Act.

Stacy Higa, 58, pleaded guilty to the charges in October in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He was sentenced by U.S. Judge Reggie B. Walton.

Following his prison term, Higa will be placed on three years of supervised release. He
is required to pay $38,642 in restitution and an identical amount in a forfeiture money judgment. He also will be required to perform 200 hours of community service.

“This defendant abused his position of trust when he robbed AmeriCorps, a critical federal program designed to help the most vulnerable Americans,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves said in a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. “His attempt to obtain CARES Act funds through bribery showed a shocking disregard for the critical importance of the program. The Department of Justice will prosecute, to the fullest extent of the law, those individuals who choose to abuse their positions of power to enrich themselves at the cost of the American people.”

From June 2011 until May 2020, Higa, served as the executive director of the Hawai‘i Commission for National and Community Service, the state service commission responsible for administering AmeriCorps programs in Hawai‘i.

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The Justice Department stated that from February 2018 through his resignation from the commission, Higa embezzled more than $38,000 in AmeriCorps funds by signing and authorizing contracts and purchase orders between the Hawai‘i Commission and two companies that he owned or controlled, without disclosing his control of the companies.

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Higa spent the embezzled funds on personal expenses including paying for approximately $20,000 of elective aesthetic dental care, according to the department.

AmeriCorps is a federally funded network of national service programs that address
critical community needs, such as increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting
poverty, sustaining national parks, preparing for disasters, and more.

“Stacy Higa exploited his position of trust to steal AmeriCorps funds from vulnerable
communities and schemed to deny his neighbors money needed for pandemic relief,” said Inspector General Deborah Jeffrey of AmeriCorps. “Today’s sentence holds him accountable, reflecting the gravity of his offenses.” 

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The Justice Department stated that in August 2020, Hanalei Aipoalani was hired to serve as Honolulu City and County’s Department of Community Service’s CARES Program Administrator and was responsible for administering CRF programs. From August 2020 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 LLCs on O‘ahu 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.

When Higa was a councilman, Hawai‘i County paid more than $250,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim that was filed against him. Higa denied any wrongdoing at the time. Before the bribery charges came to light, he worked as an executive at the Nā Leo TV station.

In an interview with the news organization Civil Beat in 2020 during his run for mayor, Higa described himself as a businessman who can get deals done quickly, which he said was a contrast to how government typically operates.

“Talk, talk, talk, I’m a business guy, I just want to get (projects) done,” Higa told the outlet, describing county decision-making as “analysis by paralysis.”

“Do it or get off the pot,” he said.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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