IN FEDERAL CASE NO. 1:20-CR-286-RBW, a federal judge approved the plea deal by Mr. Hanalei Aipoalani in which he said he was guilty of embezzling a half-million dollars in federal funds and accepting bribes from clients in the administration of CARES act funding he was awarded.
A deep dive into both the plea deal and the articles that reported on it, a small mention that Mr. Aipoalani was disbarred from participating or being awarded federal monies through grants and contracts were made. It was almost a side issue in most articles, which focused more on the activities that led him to be indicted.
But if you go back and look at the wording on the plea deal, when it came to his disbarment, one will find two things happening.
First is the fact that his actions eight years before the plea deal got him disqualified from being involved in any federal grant or contract program throughout the entire executive branch. According to the document, he “..had previously attempted to divert federal grant funds to his bank account.”
Secondly, although he was disbarred, he not only continued to administer funds through a nonprofit but was still sought after by government officials to administer other grants that came up.
This, above all, is a part of the Hanalei Aipoalani story that should be examined.
AS A PERSON WHO STARTED WORKING ON federal grants when I went to work for the State of Hawai‘i Dept. of Labor in 2008, I find it absurd that anyone of Aipoalani’s background was able to continue to work on federal grants and contracts, for any entity, after he was disbarred in 2013.
The reason why I find it absurd is found in this question “what made him a person that could skirt the rules, get away with what he did and then plead out for what was an outrageous violation of the public trust?” Because I will guarantee you one thing, if it were a lot of other people, including those who are contemporaries of mine in the grant management world we’d be on several blacklists not just for the duration of the suspension, but for all our lives.
But instead of being blacklisted, he “worked the rules” as far as I can see with his actions, to create workarounds to allow him to continue to manage funds, even though his name was no longer on the paper stating he was responsible for it.
Then, after the suspension was done, not only did he go back to work on federal grant and contract funds that he was banned from, but then he was given new opportunities that professional managers were never given a chance to apply for, to work on higher, more critical programs like the distribution of CARES funds through the City and County of Honolulu.
And even with that, Aipoalani chose to try his luck again, this time giving preference to an applicant for a bribe that looked like an employment opportunity. I guess the adage of “if at first, you don’t succeed, try something else” was a life philosophy. But in this case, the “try something else” still involved illegal activities using federal monies.
One reason that I see this happened is that the entity that disbars people like Aipoalani from being involved in distributing funds, invokes implicit and explicit rules that are, inherently, weak.
THE US GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION is the entity that rules whether someone who is declared a non-responsible contractor from doing any grant or contract work whatsoever with the United States government.
Typically, actions related to disbarment or suspension take place after a tip is called in
But sometimes this can happen if, upon regular monitoring by a federal manager overseeing the funds, sees something fishy going on. Of course, due diligence takes place and an investigation is both instigated and concluded before any judgment comes down.
In Aipoalani’s case, according to the court filing, he was found guilty of doing funny stuff with AmeriCares funding and was immediately disbarred.
Now, this is where the weakness comes into play. While disbarred, the name of the person is circulated throughout the executive branches of government – everything from the Dept. of Labor to the corporation that oversees AmeriCorps. However, that action only lasts “Usually three years in length”
So in three years, your record is clean and you can go back in again. If your connected, which I suspect Aipoalani was with the powers that be here in Hawai‘i, it reverts to business as usual as if nothing happened.
What should have happened is that his name is known to all, and if someone was to give him a second chance in managing the taxpayer’s money, they should have kept a close eye on him. Once again, if this were just about anyone else, that oversight would go without saying.
Instead, he was invited back in like an old friend it seems, and with new friends, was able to attach himself to other newer projects. And this is where the weakness of the implicit rules, applies. Those being “this is Hawaii”.
ACCOUNTABILITY is one of those practices whose application is highly dependent on the person it’s being applied to. In the case of Aipoalani, accountability of past actions seems to have been overruled by what one person said to me that Aipoalani was a “nice guy, smart.”
Well, smart guys are both adept at being able to handle episodes of accountability and being able to sidestep being called out in it during his decade-long term overseeing federal grant and contract funds.
Why is that? If one were to say that “it’s the way Hawaii works”, you’d be tapping into a cultural norm that has pervasively protected the scofflaw. Meanwhile, it lets good people who want to do a good job for Hawaii die on the recruitment vine all because someone says “that person is not our kind.”
As events with the federal grand jury, though, start to heat up again with the Kealoha case coming back around, along with these new cases like Aipoalani’s, perhaps the time has come where accountability will come back into some sort of style, at least for a little while. God knows our state could use a strong shot of it especially as we exit the pandemic saga, and see about what is going on in this state post-COVID.
We can only hope.