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Honolulu prosecutor candidates tout need for reform

  • Video by Bruce Asato / basato@staradvertiser.com Edited by Chelsee Yee / cyee@staradvertiser.com

    Five candidates for Honolulu prosecuting attorney all agreed at a debate Tuesday night about the need to restore trust and accountability in the prosecutor's office after its recent troubles. Here are their opening statements.

  • BRUCE ASATO /BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Five candidates for the Honolulu prosecutor’s seat debate for the first time in an event sponsored by the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law’s HI Innocence Project at the UH Orvis Auditorium Tuesday evening. The candidates are, left to right, former judge Steve Alm, former deputy prosecutor RJ Brown, deputy public defender Jacqueline Esser, former deputy prosecutor Megan Kau, and criminal defense attorney Tae Kim.

    BRUCE ASATO /BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Five candidates for the Honolulu prosecutor’s seat debate for the first time in an event sponsored by the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law’s HI Innocence Project at the UH Orvis Auditorium Tuesday evening. The candidates are, left to right, former judge Steve Alm, former deputy prosecutor RJ Brown, deputy public defender Jacqueline Esser, former deputy prosecutor Megan Kau, and criminal defense attorney Tae Kim.

At a debate Tuesday night, five candidates for Honolulu prosecuting attorney all agreed about the need to restore trust and accountability in the prosecutor’s office after its recent troubles but also carved out their own visions for tackling the job.

Current Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, whose term is up at the end of the year, has been on paid, voluntary leave since March 7 amid growing pressure by other key law enforcement officials after he acknowledged he received a target letter from the U.S. Department of Justice indicating he is a subject in a criminal investigation. The investigation is believed to be tied to the broader criminal case that led to the convictions of former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, who worked directly under Kaneshiro, and her husband and former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha.

Megan Kau, a former deputy prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney, won the draw to speak first and said she is a one-time victim of domestic violence who’s been homeless twice in her life. “I’m a fighter and I’m a survivor, and I’m willing to fight for Honolulu,” she said. Kau later stressed the need for the prosecutor’s office to follow state and city laws, regardless of the prosecutor’s personal position on issues.

RJ Brown, also a one-time deputy prosecutor, said the office needs to “aggressively pursue the violent, the corrupt, those who are preying on and taking advantage of the vulnerable.” The office also needs reform and a “generational change” in how it operates, he said. “This mentality that we can incarcerate away our problems, this focus is like a cancer, it’s eating us up inside out.”

Defense attorney Tae Kim said the prosecutor’s office needs to be more community-minded and he promised to attend meetings of all 33 of Oahu’s neighborhood boards as well as hold open houses in his office. “I will listen to people’s concerns and share what’s happening in the prosecutor’s office,” Kim said. “Together we will build stronger, safer, more informed communities.”

Jacquelyn Esser, a career deputy public defender, said the prosecutor’s office has failed Oahu’s residents and also spoke of a need to reform the way it operates. “It’s wasted lives, it’s wasted money and it’s broke the trust of our community.” Esser said she’s the only candidate “who has spent their entire career trying to get treatment for those who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse disorders.”

Former judge and U.S. Attorney Steve Alm touted his experience and said he has trained deputy prosecutors in the past and is best qualified to do so again. A key question voters want and need answered is “which candidate has the experience and proven record as a prosecutor to use innovative solutions to reduce crime and make our streets safer.” He later touted his role in launching the HOPE program aimed at reducing probation violations.

Supporters of Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto have filed a campaign organizational report with the state Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission but declined an invitation to participate in Tuesday night’s debate, which was sponsored by the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law’s Hawaii Innocence Project. Nadamoto told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement that he declined because he has not yet decided if he will run for the office.

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