Brian Ahakuelo, the embattled leader of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260, retired from his position Tuesday amid an investigation into the Hawaii union’s finances.
Ahakuelo, 55, was business manager and financial secretary for Local 1260, representing more than 3,200 electrical workers, including Hawaiian Electric Co. and TV station employees. He was placed on paid administrative leave Friday, along with 18 of his staff, pending an audit by the international union. IBEW named Harold Dias, a former state AFL-CIO president, trustee in the interim.
“What’s going on right now is not a negative thing. It’s actually a positive thing because there’s no improprieties. There’s no illegal or improper activities. There was no criminal intent of any sort,” Ahakuelo said. “The international is working with the local union to go over the finances … the day-to-day operations. All local unions go through that. This is a normal type of audit that is done. I’ve been accused of all kinds of different things. The bottom line is it’s not true.”
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington, D.C., said it placed Local 1260 in trusteeship “in order to investigate and correct financial issues that have arisen in the local.”
“This is an ongoing investigation by the international office, and we are unable to comment on the process until it is fully completed,” said Mark Brueggenjohann, IBEW director of media. “Our priority is always to protect our members’ rights and to guarantee that their dues are used in an appropriate and transparent manner. We will continue our trusteeship until there is full clarity on all financial issues and corrective measures have been implemented.”
A hearing to decide how long the trusteeship will last is scheduled for May 23.
In recent years Ahakuelo has been criticized by subordinates for his spending of union dues, including the hiring of four immediate family members.
Ahakuelo earned $201,712 in 2015, while his wife, Marilyn, director of community services, was paid $105,119, according to the union’s most recent financial report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. Their son, Brandon, the union’s chief of staff, received $143,274, while daughter-in-law Neiani, executive assistant, earned $77,656. Ahakuelo’s sister-in-law, Jennifer Estencion, senior executive assistant, had a salary of $101,855, the filing shows.
“There’s nothing that I have done wrong or, as far as I know, my staff has done wrong in the local union office,” Ahakuelo said. “There’s no complaint or charge filed against me. I feel very confident the local union has always been run correctly under my leadership. All we’ve done is raise the standard for our membership to have the abilities today to live a middle-class lifestyle in the state of Hawaii.”
Ahakuelo, who was elected in 2011, said he paid his family members less than what Local 1260 bylaws allow.
Marilyn Ahakuelo, who was appointed in 2011, could have been paid $145,000, he said. As senior assistant to the business manager, Brandon Ahakuelo — who started at the union in 2012 — should have earned $170,000, while Estencion, who started the same year, was supposed to be making $140,000, according to Brian Ahakuelo. Neani Ahakuelo’s position called for $92,000. She joined the union in 2014.
“I paid (much) lower rates to them for the benefit of members and to make sure I wasn’t paying my family members too much,” Brian Akahuelo said. “The salaries are approved in the bylaws by the members. Even after members approved it, the international has to approve it, too, so it goes through so many checks and balances.”
Ahakuelo said there are other employees at Local 1260 with family members working for the union. They include former TV news broadcaster Russell Yamanoha, director of media, who earned $142,654 last year and whose wife, Tammy, financial service representative, had a salary of $76,026.
In 2012 UNION organizer Thomas Decano Jr. sued Ahakuelo, claiming that he ordered Decano to “hurt or kill” six union members critical of his spending. The lawsuit states the union leader hired his wife at a salary of $70,272 to be his secretary when she had limited work experience; paid himself $1,000 per month to drive his personal vehicle; and purchased five new automobiles. Ahakuelo said the lawsuit, prompted by a dismissed worker, was without merit and thrown out of court.
Ahakuelo said he has worked hard to keep thousands of electrical workers in secure jobs and helped raise standards in the industry. IBEW members pay about $150 monthly in union dues, or 3 percent of straight time wages, much lower than the roughly $500 a month other local unions charge, he said.
IBEW Local 1260 was in the news in October when it reversed course and said it would support Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc.’s $4.3 billion proposed purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries. Previously, the union had said it was opposed to HEI’s sale to NextEra because NextEra made no commitments to train HECO workers for anticipated renewable-energy jobs.
Local 1260 said it changed its stance after NextEra committed in a written agreement to recognize the union as the exclusive bargaining agent for its members and to train current and future union members for jobs that evolve with new technologies, and promised there would be no layoffs for two years following the sale’s closing.
Ahakuelo, a Maryknoll High School graduate, said he had planned to retire this year. He has been with the union for 35 years — including at the international parent in Washington, D.C. — working his way up from director of organizing, assistant business manager, local union representative and shop steward. The unannounced trusteeship prompted him to retire now instead of waiting until summer, he said.
“This just kind of like triggered me to say, ‘OK, it’s time to go.’ I’ve given everything I needed to give to IBEW in the last 35 years from Hawaii all the way to Washington, D.C., and back,” he said. “It’s time for me to spend some time with my grandchildren. I’m looking forward to a little bit of rest because I’ve been going 500 miles an hour for the last 35 years. I think I’ve made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. I’ve touched a lot of people’s lives not only here, but across the country.”