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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Former union leader sentenced to five years

By David Waite
Advertiser Courts Writer

Gary Rodrigues, once one of the most powerful union leaders in Hawai'i, will be able to remain free for as long as an estimated two years as he appeals his federal prison sentence yesterday of five years and four months for felony convictions of mail fraud, embezzling union money and related charges.

Gary Rodrigues' sentence
  • 5 1/3 years in federal prison for convictions on 101 felony counts including mail fraud, money laundering and embezzling
  • 3 years supervisory release after he leaves prison
  • $60,100 in fines and special assessments
  • $378,103.61 in restitution to the United Public Workers Union

Rodrigues can remain free pending an appeal of his convictions to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra imposed the prison term, describing Rodrigues' fall from the leadership of the 12,000-member United Public Workers union as a "tragedy" but one that Rodrigues brought upon himself.

"At some point in time, and I don't know when that was, Mr. Rodrigues began to believe his own press — he began to act as if he worked not for the union but as if the rank and file worked for him," Ezra said.

The judge, however, ruled that Rodrigues may remain free pending an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He said the case is complicated and Rodrigues has a right to participate in the appeal in a "meaningful manner," which would be difficult if he were sent to prison immediately.

Ezra said at this point, it appears that Rodrigues has "wholly and absolutely removed himself from the activities of his former union." He said he had allowed defendants in other criminal cases to remain free on bail while appealing their convictions.

After the hearing, Rodrigues' lawyer, Doron Weinberg of San Francisco, estimated that the appeal will take between nine months to two years.

"He (Rodrigues) is very grateful that the judge allowed him to remain free while pursuing his appeal," Weinberg said. "We are confident that the verdict will be reversed on appeal."

Rodrigues, 61, declined to address Ezra when offered a chance and afterward would not comment on the sentence.

A federal jury convicted Rodrigues in November last year on 101 felony counts, accusing him of taking kickbacks and steering phony union consulting contracts to his daughter. The union represents blue-collar state and county employees, including trash collectors, prison guards and janitors.

Union insurance plans

Gary Rodrigues

Born: January 1942 on Kaua'i

Education: Kapa'a High School graduate

Military: U.S. Navy, four years; repaired radar and electronic equipment

United Public Workers Union

  • 1965: Became UPW business agent for Kaua'i
  • 1981: Appointed and later formally elected state director of UPW in Hawai'i
  • November 2002: Steps down as UPW state director after his federal conviction

Other positions

  • 1985: Elected president of the Hawai'i State Federation of AFL-CIO
  • 1986: Appointed a judge for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Judicial Panel
  • 1994: Selected by Hawai'i State Supreme Court to serve on committee to recommend trustee candidates for the Bishop Estate
  • 1994: Appointed by President Clinton to the Advisory Council on Unemployment Compensation
  • 1997: Appointed to Hawai'i's Judicial Selection Committee
The prosecution said during the trial that Rodrigues negotiated medical and dental insurance plans on behalf of UPW members and got the insurance providers to agree to refund a percentage of the premiums paid to the union so that it could hire a consultant to evaluate the plans.

But Rodrigues never told union members or the UPW's board of directors that the first to receive a portion of the consulting fees was his ex-girlfriend's stepfather and that the fees later were funneled to two companies owned by his daughter, Robin Rodrigues Sabatini, argued Florence Nakakuni, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

She claimed that Sabatini received hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultant fees for doing little or no work and channeled some of the money back to Rodrigues and other members of his family. Sabatini, who was convicted of 95 criminal counts, is to be sentenced Dec. 9.

Weinberg, Rodrigues' lawyer, argued during the trial and again at yesterday's sentencing that it was not a crime for Rodrigues to hire his daughter as a consultant or to fail to tell union members or its board of directors that he had done so.

Weinberg said the consulting fee arrangement did not cost union members "even a penny" because the money the insurance providers refunded to the union came out of their profits and did not result in union members paying more for the health insurance than necessary.

After listening for more than two hours yesterday to Weinberg's objections to the way a pre-sentence report portrayed Rodrigues' and Sabatini's actions in the case, Ezra told Weinberg that he concurred with the jury's verdict based on the trial evidence that was "unequivocal, overwhelming and, in many cases, undisputed."

"Mr. Rodrigues took it upon himself to take money from the pockets of those whom he represented," Ezra said.

The direct and indirect costs to Rodrigues as a result of the case could surpass a million dollars, Weinberg said. They include $378,000 in restitution to be paid to the union, a $50,000 fine, a $10,100 special assessment and legal fees, Weinberg said. He would not say how much he has billed Rodrigues for his services so far.

But some UPW members yesterday said Rodrigues abused the very union members he was supposed to protect and got off lightly.

"This shows that even at the blue-collar level, if you have a high position like Gary, you can do these things and get away with a light sentence," said Faatea Faatea, a groundskeeper at the city's 'Ewa Villages Golf Course.

"I believe he should've got much more time than he got. His sentence does no justice to the working people," Faatea said.

James Kahue, a custodial supervisor at the University of Hawai'i, said UPW workers perform some of the most physically demanding work compared with other government employees and are among the lowest paid.

"I feel the poor working man has been getting robbed all these years. God knows (Rodrigues) deserved what he got. It's sad he ended up like that, but I guess it takes time for all the dirt to come out of the closet," Kahue said.

The '26th senator'

Samuel Gutierrez, an adult corrections officer at O'ahu Community Correctional Center, believes Rodrigues received preferential treatment. "How many other people, convicted felons, are there who are allowed to remain free while their appeal is pending? Not very many," Gutierrez said. "I don't think it's a fair sentence, either, when you look at the the crimes he did. There are some pretty serious charges."

Rodrigues had been dubbed Hawai'i's 26th senator because of his influence at the Legislature. He was also on the Judicial Selection Commission that helped screen candidates for the bench and that decided whether judges could serve succeeding terms.

State Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), said once Rodrigues was indicted by the federal grand jury in March 2001, the extent to which the UPW's interests were represented at the state Legislature dropped off noticeably.

Following the indictment, Rodrigues also stepped down from the commission, and following the guilty verdicts, he left the union's top post of state director that paid about $200,000 a year.

Liz Ho, acting UPW administrator, said she and Peter Trask were appointed to step in by the UPW's parent organization, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in December.

"When Peter and I stepped in, the first job was to try and get the union's finances in order," Ho said. "And Gary (Rodrigues) had filed a number of lawsuits and we had to get those things in order, too."

She said she was at the Legislature a "few times to give testimony" but expects the union to have a much stronger voice at the Legislature when the 2004 session begins in January.

Ho was appointed deputy administrator in December and became acting administrator in August when Trask resigned to return to his law practice on Kaua'i.

Reach David Waite at dwaite@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8030.