Former Hawaii official pleads guilty to embezzlement, bribery charges

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HONOLULU (KHON2) — A former Hawaii public official from Hilo pleaded guilty on Wednesday, Oct. 13, to embezzling more than $38,000 from AmeriCorps and offering a bribe in return for CARES Act money.

Stacy Higa, 58, admitted in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to one count of embezzlement and one count of bribery — both charges carry statutory maximums of 10 years in prison and financial penalties.

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The former Hawaii County councilmember and mayoral candidate likely faces a range of between 46 to 57 months in prison and a fine of up to $200,000 under federal sentencing guidelines. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the plea agreement requires him to pay $38,642 in restitution to AmeriCorps and an identical amount in a forfeiture money judgment. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 13, 2022.

From June 2011 until May 2020, Higa served as the Executive Director of the Hawaii Commission for National and Community Service, the commission responsible for administering AmeriCorps programs in Hawaii. In 2018, Higa began authorizing contracts and purchase orders between the commission and two companies that he owned, embezzling more than $38,000 in AmeriCorps funds. He then spent the money on personal expenses, including aesthetic dental care that cost approximately $20,000.

Higa also admitted to carrying out a scheme involving the CARES Act, which was signed into law in March 2020 to provide financial relief to those suffering from the COVID pandemic. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Higa offered financial benefits to Hanalei Aipoalani, 42, who was hired in August 2020 as Honolulu City and County’s Department of Community Service’s CARES Program Administrator.

From August 2020 through October 2020, Higa offered to provide financial benefits to Aipoalani in order to influence the approval of Higa’s grant applications, which totaled $845,000 under the CARES Act. Higa then told an employee to submit false and backdated invoices under the grants. In court, it was also revealed that both men discussed opening limited liability companies (LLC) on Oahu and to use 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.

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Aipoalani, of Waianae, separately pleaded guilty to embezzling from AmeriCorps and agreeing to accept a bribe under the CARES Act. He was sentenced on June 30, 2021 to 46 months in prison and ordered to pay over $532,730 in restitution to AmeriCorps.

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