Oahu voters will be asked in November whether they want to stop future Honolulu city prosecutors from serving more than two consecutive terms.
The Honolulu City Council voted 8-0 recently to adopt Resolution 19-35, which places on the general election ballot a proposed amendment to the Honolulu City Charter prohibiting an elected prosecutor from seeking a third consecutive four-year turn.
Incumbent city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro went on paid leave in March after receiving a letter from federal law enforcement officials informing him that he is a target in a criminal investigation. He is finishing up a second consecutive term but has indicated he will not run for a third. The amendment would not affect him if he were to run since it would take effect only after this year’s prosecutor’s election.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser polled five announced candidates seeking to replace Kaneshiro. All but one said they support a two-term limit.
The city prosecutor is the only elected position in Honolulu that does not carry term limits. The mayor and Council members can serve only two consecutive elected terms, a law that is stopping Mayor Kirk Caldwell and five of the nine incumbent Council members from seeking reelection this year.
The resolution, introduced by Councilman Ron Menor, states that “the possibility of an abuse of power by the city’s prosecuting attorney, who has the authority to initiate criminal proceedings and to threaten the initiation of criminal proceedings against any person within the city, is particularly concerning.”
Four candidates agreed.
RJ Brown, a onetime
Honolulu deputy prosecutor now in private practice, said allowing an elected person to continue running for the same seat without a break leads to “bad results, stale thinking and perhaps corruption down the line.”
Defense attorney Tae Kim said that when it comes to elected officials, “with time, humility gets replaced by arrogance. I’m a firm believer of that.”
Deputy Public Defender Jacquelyn Esser said Oahu has had only three prosecuting attorneys since the office became an elected one in 1982: the late Charles Marsland Jr. (1981-1988), Keith Kaneshiro twice (1989-1996 and 2010-present) and Peter Carlisle (1997-2010). Kaneshiro won a special election in mid-2010 to replace Carlisle, who resigned to make a successful bid for mayor. “Government stagnation is not happening; variety is good,” Esser said.
Megan Kau, a former deputy prosecutor, was the sole candidate to voice opposition to the Charter amendment. Kau said the federal probe into Kaneshiro deals with issues that occurred within his current two terms. “So this knee-jerk reaction, saying ‘limit the prosecutor’s office to two terms,’ doesn’t make sense because Keith was in his two terms when all this happened.”
Kau said that to run for the post, a licensed attorney must have worked criminal cases in three of the past 10 years. That limits the pool of available candidates on Oahu to about 3,000, she said.
Former Judge and U.S. Attorney Steve Alm said it’s up to voters to decide the question and believes there are merits to both sides. Personally, he said, he supports a two-consecutive-term limit. “It’s really hard to dislodge an incumbent,” he said.
Alm, Brown, Esser and Kim said they all would not serve for more than two consecutive elected terms, even if voters decide to shoot down the charter amendment in the fall.
Kau, however, said she might not want to serve for more than two terms, “but if I have to, in order to make sure there are (proper) policies and procedures in place, I will.”
Carlisle, who was elected to three terms as prosecutor, submitted written testimony opposing a two-term limit. Carlisle is endorsing Kau in this year’s race.
A separate proposal now moving through the Council would ask voters whether they want to revert to a system where the mayor appoints a prosecuting attorney who is then confirmed or rejected by the Council. Resolution 19-330, introduced by Councilman Tommy Waters, won first-
reading approval from the Council on Wednesday but has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing. Waters said such a system would make it easier and faster to remove a prosecuting attorney because the appointee would be directly accountable to a mayor.
All five candidates queried said they oppose an appointed prosecuting attorney.
Acting First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lynn Costales said her office also has concerns about an appointed head. Costales said those in her office, like the public, are troubled by the specter of public corruption.
“I think that recent events have definitely shown us that whether you’re appointed or elected, public corruption is something that can happen in any given office,” Costales said. An elected prosecutor would ensure “people have a vote and say as to who that individual should be.”
The investigation involving Kaneshiro is believed to be tied to the broader public corruption case that led to the convictions last year of former Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katherine Kealoha and her husband, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha. Katherine Kealoha worked as a supervisor under Kaneshiro; Louis Kealoha was appointed chief by the Honolulu Police Commission, which is made up of community members appointed by the mayor and approved by the Council.
Also on paid voluntary leave as a result of an investigation connected to the Kealoha case is Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, an appointee of Caldwell. Leong’s attorney said the investigation into her client is tied to her role as legal advisor to the Police Commission when it voted to give $250,000 to Louis Kealoha as part of a severance package.
Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the Department of Prosecuting Attorney, said the office does not have a position on the two-term-limit amendment.
Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto, whom Kaneshiro appointed as his first deputy, has filed campaign committee organizational papers with the state Campaign Spending Commission indicating he might run for the job but has stressed he has not yet made a decision.