From one of the largest public corruption cases in state history to a new airline entering the Hawaii market, these are the top five Hawaii news stories of 2019:
Kealoha corruption case carries over into 2020
Billed as one of the largest public corruption prosecutions in state history, the case dominated headlines for much of 2019 — and it’s not over yet.
What started as a federal investigation over a stolen mailbox expanded into a wide-ranging probe that pierced the highest levels of city government.
Prosecutors in June obtained convictions of Katherine and Louis Kealoha, the former deputy prosecutor and police chief, respectively, and two former members of Louis Kealoha’s elite criminal intelligence unit. They were convicted of using their law enforcement positions to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle for a crime he didn’t commit — stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox — because of a family financial dispute.
The case will generate more headlines when the Kealohas are sentenced in March.
The ongoing corruption probe has led authorities to other agencies.
Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, Katherine Kealoha’s former boss, and Donna Leong, the city’s top civil attorney, became targets. Both are on paid leave.
Authorities also are investigating the Honolulu rail project, the largest public works project in state history.
Rob Perez, Star-Advertiser
TMT construction delayed by protesters
The success of protesters against the Thirty Meter Telescope in delaying construction of the $1.4 billion project and inspiring activism across the state rocked the political establishment in 2019.
Demonstrations at the base of the Mauna Kea Access Road and the arrests of 39 protesters on July 17 — many of them Hawaiian elders — produced vivid images that were quickly transformed into a potent social media campaign against the TMT.
At times the Mauna Kea protests attracted thousands to the “kupuna tent,” which was planted on the road to block TMT construction equipment from reaching the summit area. Protest supporters staged huge marches on Maui and through Waikiki.
And the Hawaiian brand of nonviolent protest known as “kapu aloha” spread. Demonstrations against construction of a multipurpose field in Waimanalo led to 28 arrests on Sept. 26, and about 200 were arrested during fall protests against the Na Pua Makani wind farm project in Kahuku.
An agreement brokered by Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim finally cleared the protest camp off the Mauna Kea access road for the next two months, but the protests may resume in 2020.
Kevin Dayton, Star-Advertiser
21 people perish in 3 aircraft crashes
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case continues to push for tighter restrictions of the tour helicopter and small-aircraft industries as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates three fatal crashes in Hawaii this year.
>> On April 29, a Hawaii pilot and his two tourist passengers died when their four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter crashed in a residential neighborhood in Kailua, in front of 745 Oneawa St. near Nowela Place.
>> On June 21, a Beechcraft BE65-A90 skydiving plane crashed in a fireball during takeoff at Dillingham Airfield in Mokuleia, killing all 11 occupants in one of Hawaii’s worst civilian aviation disasters. The same plane had experienced “aircraft structural failure” during a 2016 skydiving accident over Byron, Calif., according to the NTSB.
>> On Thursday, a Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter operated by Safari Helicopter Tours crashed in a remote area of Kokee on Kauai, killing all seven aboard: two families and the pilot. NTSB investigators on Monday were still figuring out how to gain access to the crash site.
Dan Nakaso, Star-Advertiser
Pali Highway closed for almost entire year
Lengthy detours, lane closures, shifting traffic hours and missed re-opening dates over a 10-month period added to the frustration of the 50,000 drivers who regularly use the Pali Highway to cross the Koolau mountains.
After the vital highway was blocked by landslides Feb. 18, the state Department of Transportation embarked on more than $20 million in repairs, which included installation of a rock and debris catchment net, erosion matting, anchors and mesh nets. An 80-foot concrete “rock shed” was constructed at the second tunnel’s entrance as a shield against future rockfalls.
Initially, repairs were estimated to be completed in August, but that date was pushed back to November and then to December.
Finally, on Dec. 21, the state opened the Pali Highway 24/7 in both directions. Then on Christmas Day, high winds and rains caused another rockfall, temporarily closing Kailua-bound lanes. Crews cleared the debris and reopened it later that night. A four-hour closure is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. New Year’s Day to remove two trees.
Nina Wu, Star-Advertiser
Southwest expands airline service into Hawaii market
The battle to carve out territory in Hawaii’s skies reached new heights this year with Southwest Airlines’ aggressive entry into markets across the isles.
The carrier entered the market in March and by April 2020 will be offering 14 flights daily from Hawaii to California and 38 departures a day on interisland routes.
Southwest broke the virtual monopoly Hawaiian Airlines had enjoyed in the interisland market since the November 2017 shutdown of Island Air and made prices on interisland flights more competitive.
Southwest and its expansion in Hawaii have been affected by the problems Boeing is having with its 737 Max aircraft. Two deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia prompted the grounding of 737 Max planes. The groundings led to Southwest flight cancellations on the mainland and had significant operational and financial impacts across its network.
Southwest doesn’t use the 737 Max in Hawaii now but eventually wants to deploy them here. That will open the possibility of additional trans-Pacific destinations since the fuel- efficient planes offer a longer range than the 737-800 aircraft the carrier currently uses for its Hawaii service.
Allison Schaefers, Star-Advertiser