The felony convictions of the retired police chief, his once high-ranking prosecutor wife and two officers picked by the chief for a secretive squad he supervised exposed gaps in the oversight of the law enforcement system but mostly are a reflection of dishonest individuals holding positions of power, according to attorneys, former judges and others.
“We had a whole bunch of people here without an ounce of integrity,” said Peter Carlisle, Honolulu former mayor and prosecuting attorney. “What you need to cure that is to hire people with integrity.”
The Honolulu Police Department already has made changes to address one reason the clandestine conspiracy among the law enforcement cabal was able to operate unimpeded for years.
The revisions were made shortly after Susan Ballard succeeded Louis Kealoha as HPD chief in November 2017.
The department’s top executive no longer supervises and picks members of what used to be known as its Criminal Intelligence Unit, the secretive squad that was at the heart of the federal case.
Kealoha and his wife, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, were convicted Thursday of using their positions of public trust to conspire over a six-year period to target Katherine’s uncle, including framing him for a crime he didn’t commit. They also were convicted of attempting to thwart a federal investigation into their actions.
Lt. Derek Wayne Hahn and officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, who were picked by Louis Kealoha for the elite squad, also were part of the scheme and were convicted of the same four counts as the Kealohas, one for conspiracy and three for attempted obstruction.
The crimes helped the former power couple enrich themselves and maintain a lavish lifestyle, prosecutors said.
Another former CIU member, retired Maj. Gordon Shiraishi, was acquitted of all charges.
Elite unit changes
The intelligence unit, which has had a controversial history, was created to gather information about organized crime and terrorism.
But evidence from the 19-day trial in U.S. District Court showed the Kealohas used members from the squad to help carry out their scheme to discredit Gerard Puana because of a 2013 lawsuit he and his mother, Florence Puana, filed against Katherine Kealoha.
The jury determined the four defendants tried to frame Gerard Puana for the alleged theft of the Kealohas’ Kahala mailbox a few months after the lawsuit was filed.
Although organized crime and terrorism are supposed to be their focus, CIU members were used to tail Puana, fabricate or alter evidence in the mailbox investigation, illegally search his property, attend to security matters at the chief’s house and provide a police presence for civil proceedings unrelated to the unit’s mission, according to trial testimony.
And many of those activities, witnesses testified, were not documented — a common practice for the secretive unit.
After Ballard became chief, the squad was renamed the Intelligence Enforcement Unit, according to HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu. The deputy chief of field operations now selects members for the unit, and its captain reports to the deputy chief, Yu said.
The squad has about 16 officers and collects, analyzes and distributes information to other HPD units and outside law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to Yu.
Some of the unit’s officers belong to joint law enforcement task forces, but none provide security for the chief or other HPD employees, she said in an email.
Even before the FBI started investigating the conspiracy case in 2015, the Honolulu Ethics Commission in 2014 was looking into complaints that police surveillance cameras were being used at the Kealohas’ Kahala residence and that CIU members were directed to monitor the home.
After the ethics investigation began, the Kealohas retaliated, filing complaints against the commission’s investigator and its executive director, Chuck Totto, according to Totto’s testimony in the Kealoha trial. Totto, now retired, told jurors the commission in November 2015 prohibited him from pursuing the probe.
The commission members are appointed by the mayor.
The mayor also appoints members to the Honolulu Police Commission, which has the power to hire and fire the chief, review HPD’s budget and investigate complaints against police officers.
But even as news reports emerged during the early period of the FBI investigation, the panel took a hands-off approach to the controversy.
Alexander Silvert, the first assistant federal public defender who is credited with bringing the case to the FBI, said the convictions Thursday underscore the need to change the way members of the two commissions are appointed.
An independent body with the appropriate expertise is needed to select members of both commissions, according to Silvert. “It needs to be taken away from the political process,” he added. “That’s essential.”
Steven Levinson, a former Hawaii Supreme Court justice who was appointed to the Police Commission in late 2016, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that “it’s not clear to me that having police commissioners appointed independent of the mayor would in and of itself improve the process.”
Given the constraints imposed by the City Charter, including prohibiting the commission from interfering with the daily administration of HPD, “that puts a whole different cast on what oversight means,” Levinson said.
Ultimately, that oversight is limited, he added. “What we’re pretty much left with is a bully pulpit.”
The prosecutor’s office
As part of the federal government’s wide-ranging corruption probe, investigators issued letters to Keith Kaneshiro, the city’s top prosecutor and Katherine Kealoha’s former boss, and Donna Leong, the city’s top civil lawyer, indicating they are targets of the investigation.
Kaneshiro and Leong are on paid leave while the investigation continues. Kaneshiro staunchly defended Katherine Kealoha as she was under investigation and publicly criticized the federal probe.
Until more is known about the government’s case against Kaneshiro, it’s not clear whether oversight gaps in the prosecutor’s office enabled Kealoha to abuse her position, according to those contacted by the Star-Advertiser.
But they said no matter what reforms may be made, the top bosses must be ethical and have high standards to protect against abuses.
“You’re going to have to get trustworthy people in the top jobs, and they’re going to have to pick trustworthy people to do their jobs,” said Steve Alm, former state judge, U.S. attorney in Hawaii and deputy prosecutor for the city.
“You have to assume that your leaders are the ones who would be ethical,” agreed Randy Lee, another former state judge and deputy prosecutor. “But in any organization, you can have someone who breaches that trust.”