The quick guilty verdicts in one of the state’s largest public corruption trials brought a wide range of reaction Thursday, with some saying the case underscored the inability of local officials to police themselves.
Federal prosecutors obtained the convictions of retired Police Chief Louis Kealoha; his wife, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha; and two current police officers.
That outside intervention shows local officials are unwilling or unable to combat corruption, according to several people who followed the high-profile case.
“There was nobody to police them,” said Victor Bakke, a criminal defense lawyer and former deputy prosecutor for the city.
Jurors found that the four defendants abused their powers as law enforcement officers and conspired to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for an alleged mailbox theft in 2013 and then attempted to thwart a federal investigation into that conspiracy.
The crimes occurred while Louis Kealoha held the top police job, Katherine Kealoha was a high-ranking deputy prosecutor and the two others, Honolulu Police Department Lt. Derek Wayne Hahn and officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, were members of the agency’s elite Criminal Intelligence Unit, handpicked by the chief.
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They targeted Puana to undermine him in a nasty financial dispute he and his mother, Florence Puana, were having with Katherine Kealoha.
Trying to frame an innocent person for a staged crime is the worst type of conviction for a law enforcement official, Bakke said.
“If it’s rotten at the top, what hope do we have for the rest of the body?” he asked.
The federal corruption investigation also has targeted Keith Kaneshiro, the city’s top prosecutor, and Donna Leong, its top civil attorney. Both got so-called target letters from the U.S. Justice Department. They are on leave pending the ongoing investigation’s outcome.
Some, including Mayor Kirk Caldwell, said it was time to move on following Thursday’s news.
“The jury has reached a verdict and I respect the process and their decision,” Caldwell said in a statement. “It’s time to move on.”
But others disagreed.
“In regard to HPD, my sense is that they want to put this behind them, that they are tired of the shadow of Kealoha that has hung over their department,” Loretta Sheehan, chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “I can understand them wanting to move past this. But respectfully, I disagree.
“We should be talking about what happened with Chief Kealoha and what happened in the CIU and what happened with this small band of individuals for a long, long time,” Sheehan continued. “This is not something we should try to move away from quickly. We should be talking about it, examining it and figuring out ways to make sure that this never happens again.”
Councilman Ikaika Anderson said Louis Kealoha should now repay the city the $250,000 he received as part of his retirement package following his indictment in this case.
“The Kealohas were found guilty in a court of law and will rightly face justice,” Anderson said in a statement. “Mr. Kealoha should now promptly return his $250,000 cash severance settlement to city taxpayers. There are no winners in this situation. The people of this city and the families of all involved have suffered considerably.”
Sheehan suggested that the Police Commission has to do a better job of providing oversight. “I hope the rest of my commissioners feel the same way because this can never happen again. This can never happen again,” she said.
Former Circuit Judge Randy Lee, who was a deputy prosecutor for 25 years and now is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Hawaii Pacific University, said the verdict vindicates the people who were hurt by the crimes and helps restore some faith in the criminal justice system.
“There was this taint on the Police Department, the Prosecutor’s Office and the legal system,” Lee said. “That’s not the way law enforcement works. So the verdict was not only a vindication of the people that they hurt, but also to the system of justice.”
Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor, expressed similar sentiment.
“We have to be able to trust our government, we have to be able to trust our justice systems,” she said. “This verdict goes a long way to restoring my trust in those systems.”
Louis Kealoha’s successor, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard, issued a statement saying the damage caused by this small group of individuals hurt both the community and the department.
“But the men and women of the HPD have been working hard this past year and a half to restore HPD’s reputation and the public’s trust,” she wrote. “We are moving forward and are committed to making sure that Honolulu continues to be one of the safest cities in the nation.”
In a news release, Robert Brewer, U.S. attorney for the southern district of California, said the “Kealohas’ extraordinary greed inspired astonishing corruption. The audacity of this couple to use the power vested in them as law enforcement officials to fund a lavish lifestyle and satisfy their personal vendettas was unconscionable. These two were supposed to be the good guys. They were supposed to enforce the law — not break it. Instead, they broke the community’s faith in a monumental way.”
The federal prosecutors who handled the corruption case were from San Diego.
“Unfortunately there are no winners in this case,” Rafael A. Riviere, FBI acting special agent in charge in Honolulu, said in the news release. “The betrayal of trust by the former prosecutor and former chief of police will linger for some time. However, justice has been served and the jury, through this verdict, has said that no one is above the law and this behavior will not be tolerated in the state of Hawaii.”