LIHUE — A Kapaa man accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from an elementary charter school in Koloa pleaded no contest Monday to second-degree theft, a class C felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Joseph Figaroa, 38, originally pleaded not guilty to one count of theft in the first degree in January 2017 but accepted a plea bargain Monday, agreeing to pay financial restitution to the victims in exchange for a reduced charge and a recommended jail sentence of less than one year and four years probation.
Criminal charges were brought against Figaroa after representatives of Alakai O Kauai Public Charter School contacted the county prosecuting attorney’s office, alleging Figaroa wrote checks to himself and his business associates totaling more than $50,000, using a bank account holding funds allocated for the school.
Court documents provide few details surrounding Figaroa’s involvement with the charter school, but Steve Martin-Oldfield, who has worked closely with the school and is familiar with the case, said the dispute began about three years ago. According to Martin-Oldfield, Figaroa volunteered to act as treasurer for Alakai Hawaii, — an organization set up to raise money for the opening of Alakai O Kauai — claiming he could help efforts to collect donations.
“DrB” Kani Blackwell, an adjunct professor with the University of Hawaii who had been overseeing Alakai Hawaii’s finances before Figaroa took over, said she became suspicious of Figaroa when he began concealing the details of Alakai Hawaii’s bank transactions, having financial statements sent first to his office and later his home.
Blackwell maintains that in four months — from mid-May to mid-September 2016 — Figaroa was able to clear 39 checks, transferring funds meant for school supplies and other educational necessities into his personal bank account or using the money to cover the operating costs of a business he owns and operates.
Of the $50,538 worth of withdrawals, Blackwell said Figaroa “redeposited” about $20,000 and paid back about $6,000, leaving the Alakai Hawaii account short about $25,000.
Blackwell was present at Figaroa’s hearing Monday in Kauai’s Fifth Circuit Court, hoping for some sort of closure in a case that is now over two years old, delayed in part by a series of continuances granted at the request of Figaroa’s legal counsel.
Figaroa’s no contest plea came after a 20-minute recess to allow Figaroa time to discuss the terms of the plea bargain with his attorney. Blackwell stood outside the courtroom during the break, confused about the delay.
“It’s been two years,” she said to her husband.
Blackwell will have to wait at least another few months. Figaroa’s sentencing is set for March 28.
“It seems like he just got more time out there when he needs to be held accountable for what he did,” Blackwell said after the hearing.
On top of her frustration at the delay, Blackwell is concerned the school may never get the missing funds back.
Figaroa did not make a statement in court, but during a phone conversation after Monday’s hearing, he insisted that there is more to the story and agreed to speak with The Garden Island. An interview with Figaroa and his attorney is tentatively scheduled to take place today.