Former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha’s actions in a 2011 criminal case involving her uncle Gerard Puana took center stage on the fifth day of the federal conspiracy trial against her; her husband, retired police Chief Louis Kealoha; and three current and former police officers.
The case happened well before Puana in the summer of 2013 was accused of stealing the mailbox at the Kealohas’ Kahala home — the matter that eventually led to a federal corruption probe and the current conspiracy trial.
Federal prosecutor Michael Wheat on Wednesday raised questions about Katherine Kealoha meeting with an incarcerated Puana in what Wheat called two “secret” meetings in 2011 at a holding area at the main Punchbowl courthouse. He was transported to the courthouse from jail even though he didn’t have a court hearing, according to court testimony. And the meetings took place even as Puana was being prosecuted by another deputy in Katherine Kealoha’s office for allegedly breaking into a neighbor’s home, according to the testimony.
Neither the deputy prosecutor handling the unlawful entry case nor the attorney who represented Puana at the time were aware of the meetings, which were arranged by a deputy sheriff at Katherine Kealoha’s request, according to testimony from the two attorneys and the deputy sheriff.
The then-deputy prosecutor, Katherine Koga, and Puana’s then-attorney, Clarissa Malinao, who at the time was with the state public defender’s office, were called as witnesses by the government.
Both raised ethical concerns about the meetings under questioning by Wheat.
“It just looks bad,” said Koga, who left the prosecutor’s office in 2012 and is now in private practice.
Malinao also told Wheat that she was unaware that her then-client was being released from Oahu Community Correctional Center to enter a Sand Island drug treatment program, which the deputy sheriff, Thomas Cayetano, told jurors he had arranged at Kealoha’s request.
“She basically asked me to help him get into the program,” said Cayetano, who appeared as a government witness under subpoena and has known Katherine Kealoha for decades. The program at the time had a long waiting list, he said.
Puana eventually pleaded no contest to the unlawful entry charge, a Class C felony, and was sentenced to five years probation, ordered to get mental health and anger management services and write an apology letter to the victim.
A motion by his attorney for the court to defer acceptance of the plea — meaning he would be spared a conviction if he stayed out of trouble for a certain period — initially was denied. But upon reconsideration, the court granted the deferral.
At Katherine Kealoha’s direction, deputy prosecutor Kaina Awong in September 2013 — about two months after Puana was accused of stealing the Kealoha’s mailbox — filed a motion in the unlawful entry case to correct an “illegal” sentence, seeking to restore the initial conviction against Puana, according to Malinao.
Malinao told Wheat she opposed the motion and filed her own, seeking to disqualify the prosecutors from the case. “It presented quite a conflict,” she testified.
The court denied both motions.
Upon questioning from Cynthia Kagiwada, Katherine Kealoha’s attorney, Cayetano, the deputy sheriff, said he has made arrangements in other cases for relatives to meet detained family members at the courthouse holding area.
“So this is not the first time you’ve done this?” Kagiwada said.
“Correct,” Cayetano replied.
Koga also told Kagiwada that Katherine Kealoha never spoke to Koga about the Puana case.
And Malinao, under questioning by Kagiwada, agreed that it was common for defendants to meet with family members, sometimes without the defendant’s attorney present.
Prosecutors also called Jaunette DeMello, Katherine Kealoha’s cousin, to the stand Wednesday, asking her about a June 2011 phone call she received from Kealoha. DeMello lived several houses away from the home that Puana and his mother, Florence Puana, shared.
DeMello testified that Kealoha called to warn her that Gerard Puana was about to be arrested and that DeMello and her younger sister should leave their home to be safe.
Kealoha later told DeMello that police found 100 pure ecstasy tablets at the home and that her uncle was dealing drugs, DeMello testified.
Prosecutors also called to the stand Carolyn DeMello, Jaunette’s mother, who answered questions about an incident in 2011 when, according to DeMello, Katherine Kealoha pulled a gun from the waistband under her blazer. The two had just entered the Puana residence, and upon seeing some furniture cushions in disarray, Kealoha believed the home may have been burglarized, DeMello told jurors.
Kealoha came to the residence with Carolyn DeMello to get clothes for Gerard Puana for his drug rehab stay, according to DeMello.
During that visit, Kealoha told DeMello that they should look around for guns or drugs in the residence because Florence Puana, their grandmother, could lose the home if such items were kept there, DeMello said.
No guns or drugs were found, she said.
But at one point, Kealoha used a metal device to pick the lock of Gerard Puana’s filing cabinet and a safe found inside the cabinet and took some Kealoha business cards and put something else inside her pocket, DeMello testified.
“It felt kind of wrong,” she said.
The defendants in the conspiracy trial are accused of trying to frame Puana for the mailbox theft and lying about their actions to federal investigators. The other defendants are police Lt. Derek Wayne Hahn, officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and retired Maj. Gordon Shiraishi.
Testimony resumes today.