Hawaii Attorney General Clare E. Connors on Tuesday asked the Hawaii Supreme Court to immediately suspend Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, who is a target of a federal investigation.
Kaneshiro until recently was the boss of Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, who is under federal indictment on charges of public corruption and drug dealing. Kealoha, according to the latest indictment, used her position to protect her brother, who was supplying her with drugs, from prosecution.
“Kaneshiro’s refusal to take leave from his public office has subjected every case being handled by the Honolulu Department of the Prosecuting Attorney to potential ethical and legal challenges,” Connors’ request states. “His refusal to take leave — even temporarily during the pendency of the federal criminal investigation purportedly targeting him — not only compromises the integrity of the prosecutions being conducted under his authority, it seriously harms the working relationship between his office and crucial counterparts in the law enforcement community.”
Kaneshiro’s office issued a one-sentence statement in response to Connors’ petition: “Mr. Kaneshiro is in the process of reviewing the petition and has nothing more to say at this time.”
William C. McCorriston, a private attorney for Kaneshiro, confirmed Kaneshiro received a target letter from federal prosecutors, but insisted that there was no reason for him to step aside.
“There should be no rush to judgment here. There’s been no finding by anybody that Mr. Kaneshiro has done anything wrong; there has been no finding of probable cause by any prosecutor or grand jury regarding Mr. Kaneshiro,” said McCorriston.
“I’m increasingly concerned about the concepts of fairness, due process and most of all the presumption of innocence,” he said.
In December the No. 2 prosecutor in Kaneshiro’s office — First Deputy Chasid Sapolu — received a subject letter from the Department of Justice, one step below a target letter.
“The first deputy has done what we are asking Mr. Kaneshiro to do, which is he has taken leave from public office to avoid any appearance of conflict or appearance of impropriety,” Connors said.
City Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, the city’s top civil attorney, was put on paid leave last month after receiving a target letter from the U.S. Department of Justice related to the ongoing federal investigation involving Katherine Kealoha and her husband, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha. Both are under federal indictment on charges of public corruption.
The petition from Connors’ office asking for Kaneshiro’s immediate suspension includes a three-page declaration from HPD Chief Susan Ballard, who wrote that since hearing reports in December that Kaneshiro received a target letter, “I have been uncomfortable with his continued attendance at the monthly public safety meeting when he, himself, is the target of a federal criminal investigation.
“I understand that at this time, Mr. Kaneshiro has not been indicted, or proven guilty of any crime, however, based on my work with federal law enforcement, I understand the gravity of a target letter as opposed to a subject letter,” Ballard wrote. “Because of the lack of information regarding the allegations, I am unable to discern whether the continued practice of sharing confidential information with Mr. Kaneshiro is appropriate. … I am concerned that Mr. Kaneshiro’s situation could adversely affect or compromise pending cases, closed cases, and future cases.”
If the Hawaii Supreme Court takes up her petition, Connors said briefs likely will be submitted ahead of arguments before the court.
According to the City Charter, a vacancy in the Office of Prosecuting Attorney “caused by death, resignation, removal or disqualification” shall be filled by the first deputy if the unexpired term is for less than one year. If the first-deputy position is vacant, the mayor — “with the approval of the City Council” — will appoint a replacement within 30 days of the vacancy.
If the prosecutor’s term is for more than a year, then the vacancy will be filled by a special election.
Kaneshiro has been prosecutor since 2010 and was elected to a four-year term in 2016.
Calls to step aside
Mayor Kirk Caldwell said if Kaneshiro asked for his advice, he would suggest he follow Leong’s example.
He said he and Kaneshiro have not spoken personally in a while.
City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said Connors’ petition makes it clear Kaneshiro lost the confidence of the attorney general and the Honolulu police chief. “They both recommend his removal to allow the federal investigation to run its course,” Pine said in a statement. “I concur with their recommendation and urge the City Prosecutor to step aside immediately.”
Connors said her office emailed the petition and pleadings to Kaneshiro’s office Tuesday morning.
“This is unprecedented,” she said. “This is an extraordinary situation, to be very clear. There has not been, as far as we could tell, a situation like this before. So we wanted to be very careful as to how we proceeded, as to how we addressed the situation and identifying this conflict. … We believe it requires immediate action.”
Asked if, as Connors suggested, the mere appearance of impropriety should be enough for Kaneshiro to remove himself as prosecutor, McCorriston responded, “With due respect, some attorneys believe that. I don’t believe that’s a legal requirement.”
“There is no concern whatsoever in the Office of Prosecuting Attorney that there is any dysfunction,” he said. “Cases are being prosecuted every day, competently.”
Kaneshiro has voluntarily removed himself from office decisions dealing with the Kealoha federal case or matters related to it. Day-to-day operations at the agency are being overseen by division chiefs, he said. “Those section heads are relatively independent.”
Kaneshiro is also the subject of an impeachment petition that collected about 900 signatures.
Earlier this month the City Council Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee voted 7-1 to recommend that city taxpayers pay Kaneshiro’s legal bills as he fights the impeachment petition, which was organized by Honolulu businessman Tracy Yoshimura.
The committee recommended approving $75,000 to retain the Honolulu law firm of McCorriston Miller Mukai MacKinnon, and the full Council was to take a final vote on the resolution today.
But EMLA Committee Chairman Ron Menor said late Tuesday that he has asked interim Council Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi to pull the measure from today’s agenda.
While lawyers from the corporation counsel’s office advised the Council that the city is required to provide legal representation to Kaneshiro in the case, Menor said, he believes Connors’ request gives reason for him and his colleagues to hold off on a vote. Connors’ petition seeks to remove Kaneshiro from practicing law, so, if it’s successful, it would likely render Yoshimura’s petition moot.
McCorriston said Kaneshiro “has not been formally served” with Yoshimura’s impeachment petition. Nonetheless, McCorriston said, he will appear on behalf of Kaneshiro at a status conference on the case scheduled for Thursday before Circuit Judge Jeffrey Crabtree.
Keith Kiuchi, Yoshimura’s attorney, said his client’s case will continue for now. If Kaneshiro resigns, “then we’ve accomplished what we need to do, but if he takes leave, then we’ll probably hold our petition in abeyance,” Kiuchi said. “Our petition is to remove him from office. The AG’s petition is to … suspend him from practicing law.”
Kiuchi said he expects the Supreme Court to hear the attorney general’s case in the next month or two.
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