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Federal case likely to raise doubts over work as prosecutor

Nelson DaranciangRob Perez
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STEVEN TONTHAT / STONTHAT@STARADVERTISER.COM

Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, left, pleaded not guilty to federal fraud and corruption charges. However, criminal defense attorneys say the federal indictment raises enough red flags that prosecutors should review all the cases she’s worked on the past several years to ensure they were handled properly.

The federal indictment of Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha on charges ranging from bank fraud to obstruction of justice raises enough red flags that prosecutors should review all the cases she’s worked on the past several years to ensure they were handled properly, according to criminal defense attorneys.

Although the charges stemmed from conduct unrelated to her prosecutorial duties, they call into question her trustworthiness and cast a cloud of suspicion over all the cases she’s handled, the defense attorneys said.

Even Colin M. McDonald, one of the prosecutors working on the federal case, raised questions about Kealoha’s conduct in arguing to U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard L. Puglisi on Friday that she remain in custody.

“Mrs. Kealoha has a personal track record of obstructing justice,” McDonald, a special attorney to the U.S. attorney general, told the judge.

McDonald’s request was denied.

Several criminal defense attorneys told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, who has been a staunch defender of Kealoha in the midst of the federal probe, should review all the cases she has handled to make sure they aren’t tainted.

“If I was the administrator, I’d want to review the work she has done on the individual cases,” said Jack Tonaki, the state public defender.

Victor Bakke, another criminal defense lawyer and a former member of the prosecutor’s office, said he expects attorneys with clients in criminal cases that Kealoha worked on to raise questions about that connection, with the strongest arguments of a taint coming in cases in which she played a principal role.

Bakke said hundreds of cases potentially could be affected. “It’s a big monkey wrench,” he said. “It’s massive.”

Alexander Silvert, first deputy federal defender, told reporters that if he were in state court and had a case that Kealoha handled, he would seek a dismissal.

“I think she has jeopardized a lot of cases that are pending in state court by her actions and her inability and her unwillingness to step aside,” Silvert said.

Kaneshiro, through a spokesman, declined comment.

Kealoha; her husband, retired Honolulu Police Department Chief Louis Kealoha; and four former or current HPD officers were indicted as part of an unprecedented case of abuse of power and corruption by public officials in Hawaii.

Some of the alleged misconduct by Katherine Kealoha happened when she was not with the prosecutor’s office. But most of it allegedly occurred while she was a deputy prosecutor, including as head of the seven-attorney career criminal unit.

The unit, which she headed since at least 2011, focuses on repeat offenders in felony cases.

Chuck Parker, a spokesman for Kaneshiro, said Katherine Kealoha was placed on leave without pay Friday pending the outcome of the federal case.

She already was on leave without pay since May — a status she had requested and that was unrelated to the federal investigation, according to Parker.

But once she was indicted, her leave became involuntary, he said.

Kealoha has had three stints at the prosecutor’s office. She first joined the office in 1993 and stayed until April 2001. She rejoined the staff in May 2006 and left in February 2008.

She started her most recent stint in November 2010.

While the charges she faces stem from conduct unrelated to her prosecutor job, federal investigators are looking at the prosecutor’s office as well.

In January, they raided the office, searching computer servers and seizing laptops.

The grand jury investigation also has delved into a land purchase involving the office’s Makiki safe house for female victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

And McDonald, the federal prosecutor, told the court Friday that Kealoha used her position as a deputy prosecutor to make false representations in state court to get a case involving excessive speeding dismissed.

He also cited another case in which Kealoha and two police officers entered and searched a relative’s home after the relative was arrested.

“This establishes her willingness to use her power to gain an advantage,” McDonald told Puglisi.

Jonathan Burge, a criminal defense attorney and former police officer, doesn’t believe Kealoha’s indictment will have much of an impact for now on the prosecutor’s office.

Unless she is convicted or more facts emerge calling into question her conduct as a prosecutor, “at this point, I don’t really see too many red flags,” Burge said.

The Kealoha Case: Key Players & Key Dates by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd

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