The federal criminal case against retired police chief Louis Kealoha and his deputy prosecutor wife, Katherine, underscores the need for more oversight of the secretive intelligence unit that played a key role in the alleged conspiracy they are accused of engineering, according to advocates for more accountability within Honolulu’s police force.
The five former or current Honolulu Police Department officers who are charged with being part of the alleged conspiracy were at one time members of the agency’s elite Criminal Intelligence Unit, which is handpicked by the chief to investigate terrorism and organized crime and reports directly to the chief.
The Kealohas are accused of scheming with the other defendants to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, in the alleged theft of the Kealohas’ mailbox, or attempting to cover up the scheme. All but one pleaded not guilty.
Retired officer Niall Silva pleaded guilty in December to conspiring with other HPD officers and Katherine Kealoha to frame Puana for the alleged theft. He agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
In the wake of the federal charges, the police department or those who oversee it should reform the system to bring more accountability to the intelligence gathering process, critics of the current system say.
“I think it’s always healthy to have accountability for law enforcement,” said Annelle Amaral, a former legislator and police officer who was on the force when HPD formed the intelligence unit in the late 1970s to gather information on organized crime syndicates. “It’s good for the community and good for law enforcement.”
But because the unit gathers sensitive information, an additional layer of oversight must come from within law enforcement, not an outside civilian body, according to Amaral. “The FBI is able to do it. Why not HPD?” she said.
Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii criminologist, said the lack of oversight was a huge part of the Kealoha saga.
“If the feds hadn’t gotten involved,” the Kealohas “might have been able to brazen it out,” she said in an email. “All the local levers of power (particularly the Honolulu Police Commission) did absolutely nothing. MIA also include the City Council and the Mayor.”
Eric Seitz, who represents Puana in a civil lawsuit against the city, the Kealohas and several officers, also cited a lack of oversight, particularly for a unit that has no clear mandate, no rules and reports to one person.
“You have a real problem with accountability if nobody is supervising the chief,” said Seitz, who has called for an investigation of the overall unit and its practices and policies.
He said major lawsuits have been filed in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago over intelligence gathering activities within their respective police departments.
Several people, including Councilman Brandon Elefante, who heads the Council’s public safety committee, said any decisions on whether reforms are needed should be left to the new police chief, who the commission is in the process of hiring.
A hiring decision is expected by month’s end.
Former city Prosecutor Peter Carlisle said oversight of the intelligence unit should be examined, but he doesn’t view the problem as “an institution that has gone wrong.”
If individuals are guilty of wrongdoing, “you treat them like a gangrenous leg: You cut it off,” he said.
But the task of gathering intelligence is critical to keeping the city and its citizens safe, Carlisle said.
The CIU currently has 19 officers and is led by a captain, according to Michelle Yu, an HPD spokeswoman.
She said officers who were working in CIU when the target letters from federal investigators were issued were immediately transferred out of the unit.
“Most of the officers now assigned to the CIU were not there at the time of the incident,” she said in an email, referring to the mailbox case. “There are no other changes planned at this time.”
At a news conference last week following the Kealohas’ initial appearance in federal court, Cary Okimoto, the acting HPD chief who is retiring at the end of November, told reporters that he meets every other day with the unit’s officers to find out what they’re doing. Okimoto, noting the changes made to the CIU personnel, spoke after prosecutors outlined the case against the Kealohas.
Federal officials said the couple used their power and influence as government officials to commit fraud and then led a conspiracy to hide their actions from federal investigators, prosecutors and a grand jury.
“Like any other group, like any other division in the Police Department, we need supervision to be very, very tight (to) make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Okimoto told reporters. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have the controls in place, things like this can happen real easily.”
Jonathan Burge, a criminal defense lawyer who served as an HPD officer from 1984 to 1992, cautioned against the idea of providing an extra layer of oversight for the intelligence unit, especially given the extremely sensitive nature of the information it typically gathers.
“If you were to make more people aware of what’s going on, there’s more chance of leaks happening,” he said.
As a defense attorney, Burge said he has never had a case in which a CUI officer was involved in the prosecution of his client, because the unit typically is not involved in enforcement.
But if he did have such a case, Burge said, he would request underlying information about the officer from the ongoing federal probe to see whether it was favorable to his client. And when that request invariably would be denied because of the pending investigation, he would ask the court to have the officer excluded as a witness against his client, according to Burge.
He said he would expect other defense attorneys to do likewise.
Burge dismissed the idea of disbanding the unit, as some have suggested, saying such a proposal was overblown. Instead, the monitoring of the unit is key, according to Burge. “It all starts with the chief. You have to select a chief you can trust.”
Star-Advertiser reporter Nelson Daranciang contributed to this report.