Retired police Chief Louis Kealoha wants Honolulu Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan disqualified from considering any matters that involve him, arguing she’s been critical of him and the police department in the past.
Sheehan told colleagues Wednesday that she would not recuse herself for asking tough questions of Kealoha and the department, as she’s expected to do as a member of the commission tasked with overseeing HPD.
The issue came before commissioners at their meeting Wednesday because Kealoha has requested that they approve Oahu taxpayers footing the bill for his legal representation in a civil case that alleges he was part of a conspiracy to have his wife’s uncle unlawfully arrested and maliciously prosecuted.
Following Sheehan’s statement, the Police Commission decided to forward Kealoha’s claim to the city Ethics Commission for its opinion on whether she should be disqualified from considering his legal counsel request or any other
matters related to him.
Kealoha retired effective March 1 after being sent a “target letter” from the FBI informing him that he was being investigated in a federal conspiracy case that is, at least in part, related to the civil lawsuit brought by Gerard Puana, the uncle of the former chief’s wife, Katherine Kealoha.
Kevin Sumida, Louis Kealoha’s attorney, was present at Wednesday’s meeting but made no statements to the commission.
In a letter to the Police Commission on May 30, Sumida said Sheehan has gone beyond her duties as a commissioner and “made it clear that she had a specific agenda” since being appointed to the panel last summer by Mayor Kirk Caldwell. In accusing Sheehan of being biased against the former chief, Sumida pointed out that Sheehan was the only commissioner to vote against a $250,000 severance package paid to Kealoha.
“At the very outset, she informed the media that she would come to the commission with a ‘jaundiced eye’ … and, without reviewing evidence other than what she already read in the media (by any measure an incomplete and imprecise source of evidence), she was already prepared to give the chief an ‘unsatisfactory’ rating,” Sumida wrote.
Sheehan has “disregarded the law in pursuit of her agenda” and improperly disclosed publicly confidential information tied to disciplinary matters involving HPD officers, Sumida said.
Sheehan, in a letter to the Ethics Commission on Wednesday, denied having an agenda against Kealoha. To suggest that she did, she said, “former Chief Kealoha relies upon a bold mischaracterization of the record as well as shameful innuendo devoid of any credible basis whatsoever.”
Sheehan said Kealoha himself acknowledged in 2014 that HPD “isn’t as transparent as it should be” and that she had hoped to work with the then-chief to improve the situation.
“Police commissioners would be unable to perform their function should this commission decide that matters of public record cannot be raised and queried,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan said she was most troubled by Sumida’s suggestion that her law partner, Thomas Otake, violated his confidentiality obligations to a client by leaking confidential information to her. “This is an outrageous accusation of unethical conduct for which no basis whatsoever exists,” she wrote.
Sheehan said she had made no decision on Kealoha’s request for payment of legal bills.
The Department of Corporation Counsel, the city’s chief civil litigation arm, recommended to the Police Commission that Kealoha’s request not be approved. As a result, the commission voted to ask Kealoha to provide more information regarding his request to the commission in quasi-judicial contested case proceedings.
City attorneys also recommended that similar requests by current HPD officers Daniel Sellers and Ming-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen for legal representation in the Puana civil case not be approved.
The Corporation Counsel’s office did, however, recommend that HPD Detective Dru Akagi receive up to $50,000 for city-paid legal counsel in the same civil lawsuit. Akagi’s request was forwarded by the commission in April and the Honolulu City Council approved it on June 7. By approving Akagi’s request, the commission and the Council essentially are saying that what Akagi is accused of doing occurred while he was acting within his performance of duties as a police officer.
Police Commission Chairman Max Sword said that seeking an Ethics Commission opinion regarding the Sheehan-Kealoha matter will not delay the timetable for contested case proceedings involving the requests for counsel by Sellers and Nguyen.
Puana’s lawsuit alleges that the Kealohas, along with other HPD officers, conspired to have him arrested, imprisoned and prosecuted for stealing their mailbox in order to gain an advantage over him in an ongoing legal dispute involving Katherine Kealoha’s handling of money belonging to Florence Puana, who is his mother and Katherine’s grandmother.
The case against Gerard Puana was dismissed in December 2014, shortly after the chief, while on the witness stand, made an inadmissible statement about Puana’s criminal history.
Alexander Silvert, the federal public defender representing Puana in that case, turned over his information to federal authorities. Federal prosecutors have now been meeting with a grand jury for more than a year regarding an investigation into the theft of the mailbox and other matters.
In December, former HPD Officer Niall Silva pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to conspiring with others in the mailbox case to alter evidence and falsify records, obstructing a federal prosecution and making false statements against Puana.
Less than a week later, Louis Kealoha voluntarily placed himself on paid administrative leave after publicly acknowledging he received a target letter from the FBI.
In June 2016, the Kealohas and their underage daughter sued the Ethics Commission, former Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto, former Ethics Commission investigator Letha DeCaires and the city. The lawsuit alleges Totto and DeCaires “conducted a series of unfounded, vindictive, unsubstantiated and illegal investigations against the Kealohas.”