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Whistle-blower complaint targets Na Leo managers

Na Leo community television executives are investigating a whistle-blower complaint filed by an employee charging a hostile work environment because three managers who had a business relationship with former CEO Stacy Higa continue working at the station.

The complaint, filed by an anonymous employee whose identity is known to the newspaper, self-characterized as “a scared and concerned employee” in the two-page complaint.

“The three managers continue to hold lead roles in management that actively supervise current employees who feel very uncomfortable and unsafe with the three helping to direct the daily work operations of Na Leo TV,” the complaint states. “The trust is gone in these managers’ ability to properly direct daily duties, supervise employees, and in being required to continue to work side by side with them. The current work environment and work culture is compromised and it is not a safe place to hold employment at because these serious matters have not been properly addressed by the Board of Directors.”

Higa, who has pleaded guilty to federal embezzlement and bribery charges, faces a likely range of between 46 and 57 months in prison and a fine of up to $200,000. In his plea agreement, he pointed to the three managers as having a part in his schemes. Higa is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 13 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. He remains free after surrendering his passport.

Interim CEO Connie Kiriu forwarded the whistle-blower complaint to the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs’ Cable Television Division earlier this week, saying the nonprofit is investigating the allegations, a DCCA spokesman said Thursday. Kiriu confirmed an investigation has begun.

Neither Na Leo Board Chairman Claude Onizuka or Vice-Chairman Gerald Takase returned telephone messages Friday.

The board had commissioned an independent third-party investigation and audit after learning of Higa’s involvement, according to a statement from the board and Kiriu Friday afternoon.

“The findings of the investigation were presented to the Board and it allayed any concern of “personal profit” by any Na Leo employee beyond what was already reported in the media concerning Higa,” the statement said.

As far as the newest allegations, the statement said officials had no proof the complaint came from an employee, but they are taking it seriously.

“Na Leo is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all employees,” the statement said. “For this reason, notwithstanding the anonymous nature of this memo, the allegations are being further investigated with the primary focus of ensuring a safe workplace for our employees.”

A 13-page statement of offense, signed Aug 19 by Higa, detailed a complicated series of transactions among Higa; co-conspirator Hanalei Aipoalani, who has also pleaded guilty; Na Leo; Makaala Solutions LLC, a business and leadership consulting company owned by three of Higa’s Na Leo employees — Assistant General Manager and Marketing Manager Micah Alameda, Grants Manager Kyle Kawano and Production Manager Matt Cordero and Kawaico Inc., an embroidery company owned by Higa and his wife at their Hilo home address.

Aipoalani admitted to embezzling from AmeriCorps and agreeing to accept a bribe under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. He was sentenced to 46 months in prison.

There are no records of legal action in federal court against the three employees.

The statement of offense doesn’t specifically name the companies or the parties other than Higa and Aipoalani, but the names were ascertained by the newspaper from public records, campaign spending reports and business filings.

The statement signed by Higa says Higa asked his three Na Leo employees to create Makaala Solutions with him as a silent partner, and he had control over it. He then had Kawano create a back-dated false invoice for $270,000 and other invoices through Na Leo adding up to $845,000 of CARES Act funds based on his relationship with Aipoalani, who had been named City and County of Honolulu Department of Community Services grant administrator for coronavirus relief funding.

Makaala Solutions also received $39,962.95 in AmeriCorps money based on contracts signed by Higa, and, in turn, forwarded $25,142.10 to Kawaico Inc., for Higa’s own use. Another $4,000 was sent to Higa’s mayoral campaign account as a business donation. In addition, $20,000 was spent on Higa’s elective cosmetic dental care.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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