Will she or won’t she?
The question of whether Katherine Kealoha — the central figure in the ongoing public corruption and conspiracy trial — will testify on her own behalf was left unanswered after her lawyers called seven witnesses Tuesday to present her defense. One was called the day before.
The possibility that Kealoha might testify Tuesday packed a fourth-floor courtroom at U.S. District Court during the 14th day of the trial for Kealoha; her husband, retired Police Chief Louis Kealoha; and three current and former police officers.
The defendants have been charged with trying to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the alleged theft of the Kealohas’ mailbox in June 2013 at their Kahala home and subsequently lying about their actions to federal investigators.
Katherine Kealoha was a deputy prosecutor and her husband the police chief at the time.
After the seven witnesses finished testifying Tuesday, Kealoha’s attorneys indicated to U.S. District Chief Judge J. Michael Seabright that she would make a decision by this morning on whether to take the stand.
Earlier in the day, Earle Partington, one of her attorneys, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that his client was not likely to decide until after the witnesses for all parties were called.
Two defendants, Lt. Derek Wayne Hahn and retired Maj. Gordon Shiraishi, are expected to present their cases today.
The other two, Louis Kealoha and officer Ming-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, rested their cases earlier in the week. Neither exercised their right to testify on their own behalf.
“She’s permitted to hear all the evidence before she decides,” Partington said of his client’s decision to testify.
If she puts off that decision, he added, they could rest her case subject to hearing the remaining witnesses and then decide. That is her legal right to do so, according to Partington.
Seabright told Kealoha that she has the right to testify or not. If she testifies, jurors would use the same criteria as with other witnesses to gauge credibility.
If she opts not to testify, Seabright said, he would instruct jurors not to hold that against her or draw any conclusions from it.
The question of whether Kealoha would testify served as the backdrop for a day of testimony about mailboxes and reverse mortgages as her lawyers tried to undermine the government’s case.
The most tense testimony came in exchanges between attorney Kevin Sumida, a witness for Kealoha; and Michael Wheat, lead prosecutor for the federal government.
Sumida represented Kealoha in the civil lawsuit that Puana and his mother, Florence Puana, filed against Kealoha just a few months before the alleged mailbox theft. Florence Puana is Katherine Kealoha’s grandmother.
The Puanas accused their relative of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars through a 2009 reverse mortgage on Florence Puana’s Wilhelmina Rise home and via other investments.
That financial dispute and the desire to undermine Gerard Puana was a key motive for the alleged conspiracy, prosecutors say.
A state judge eventually ruled in Kealoha’s favor in the civil suit and awarded her more than $600,000. That decision is on appeal.
Sumida testified that he had contacted the Attorney General’s Office because of suspicions he had about a Gerard Puana trust document that named Kealoha as trustee.
A handwriting expert previously testified for the government that someone forged two signatures of Kealoha’s uncle on the trust document and that Kealoha could have signed the name of a nonexistent notary public named Alison Lee Wong on it.
Sumida, however, said Kealoha did not object to turning over the document to the Attorney General’s Office and that as trustee, Kealoha could receive “no benefits whatsoever.”
He also said the idea of proposing a conservatorship for Florence Puana was not Kealoha’s idea and that his firm suggested a non-family member be appointed.
The intent was to protect Puana from what he suspected was financial manipulation by her son Gerard, Sumida testified. The conservatorship was not granted.
Wheat asked Sumida why he didn’t turn over the trust document to the Puanas’ attorney immediately, rather than several months later.
“You knew that document was central” to that case, Wheat asked.
Not if it was fake, Sumida replied.
Also on cross-examination, Sumida said he was not aware as he was working on the civil case that Kealoha had purchased a trust document kit or a notary stamp with the name Alison Lee Wong on it. He also said he wasn’t aware that his firm had lost an appeal of the conservatorship decision.
Sumida told Wheat he has worked with Kealoha on possibly four to five cases or more within the past nine years and that she owes him lots of money. At one point he suggested it might be over $500,000.
Don’t you stand to be paid if Kealoha wins this case? Wheat asked.
“I don’t know if I stand to be paid under any circumstances,” Sumida replied.
Earlier in the day, Shari Motooka-Higa, who was a Central Pacific Bank manager in 2009 and worked on Florence Puana’s reverse mortgage, testified that Puana went through mandatory counseling by an independent nonprofit entity before getting the loan and that Motooka-Higa would not have processed it if she thought Puana, then 89, did not understand what she was signing.
She also said counselors look to make sure prospective borrowers, who must be at least 62, are pursuing a loan of their own free will.
An FBI forensic accountant testified previously that the reverse mortgage put $513,474 into a Bank of Hawaii account that Kealoha jointly controlled with her grandmother.
After Kealoha helped arrange the $360,439 purchase of a Salt Lake condo for Gerard Puana, the FBI accountant testified, the balance in the Bankoh account was emptied out in six months for a variety of Kealoha-related expenses.
On cross-examination, Motooka-Higa said Kealoha, not Florence Puana, was the one who contacted her about the loan, that Motooka-Higa was not present when Puana had her counseling and that Central Pacific had a financial incentive to close the loan. The bank earned $6,000 immediately upon closing, and Motooka-Higa received a commission, she said.
Dru Akagi, lead detective on the mailbox case, who was called as a government witness earlier in the trial, testified Tuesday as a Kealoha witness. He was asked about his interview of suspect Gerard Puana at Honolulu Police Department headquarters in June 2013.
Akagi told Cynthia Kagiwada, Kealoha’s co-counsel, that the suspect told him during questioning that he didn’t take the mailbox even though Akagi had not yet told him what the case was about. Akagi was not among the officers present when Puana was arrested.
On cross-examination by prosecutor Colin McDonald, Akagi said suspects are told when they are arrested what the alleged offense is.
He also told McDonald that he did not know at the time that police in the days before Puana was arrested were conducting surveillance of him.
“Are you surprised to learn that?” McDonald asked.
“Yes,” Akagi replied.