Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha will stay on the job as the FBI and a special prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office continue their criminal probe into the circumstances surrounding the HPD’s own investigation into his missing mailbox.
On Wednesday, the Honolulu Police Commission — the sole agency with the ability to hire, fire or otherwise discipline the chief — decided in a closed-door meeting that there wasn’t enough evidence to put Kealoha on leave.
In fact, the Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa told reporters after the executive session meeting that his agency hasn’t received any information whatsoever that would prove an FBI investigation even exists.
“We have no evidence or information that the FBI is conducting an investigation,” Taketa said. “There are some rumors that there’s an inquiry, but at this point in time there’s no basis at all for the commission to consider any type of administrative leave or disciplinary action.”
Taketa said commission staff had reached out to the FBI but was told that the agency could neither confirm or deny that an investigation was underway. He added that the commission could not rely on the numerous media reports from multiple news outlets that had already confirmed the investigation and named the special prosecutor.
The police commission, which is made up of volunteers appointed by the mayor, has come under intense scrutiny over the past year for its inability to crack down on misconduct within the ranks of the Honolulu Police Department.
Hawaii Sen. Will Espero has been at the forefront pushing for reforms, not only at the commission level but statewide as well. The senator recently called on the commission to place Kealoha on paid leave while the FBI conducted its criminal probe.
While he was disappointed in the commissioners’ decision — which Taketa said was unanimous — Espero said he understands their predicament.
“At this stage the commission, due to its history and its tradition of dealing with chiefs, is proceeding extremely cautiously and giving the chief the benefit of the doubt,” Espero said. “I believe that there’s a probe going on, yes, and I think the commission is just basing its decision on what they know. And basically they know nothing.”
Kealoha was not at Wednesday’s meeting. Deputy Chief Cary Okimoto took his place. According to HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu, Kealoha was in Chicago for a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Federal officials are looking into whether Kealoha and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a high-ranking city prosecutor, framed her uncle, Gerard Puana, for stealing their mailbox and inappropriately using Honolulu Police Department resources to conduct an investigation.
Puana was put on trial in U.S. District Court for the theft only to have the case thrown out by a judge when the chief caused a mistrial by inappropriately telling jurors about Puana’s criminal past. But there had always been questions about whether Puana was the real culprit.
His attorney, Alexander Silvert, built his defense around the theory that his client was set-up. In fact, Silvert went so far as to say that the man the Kealohas identified as Puana in surveillance video showing the theft was not Puana at all.
Silvert shared his evidence with the U.S. Attorney’s Office after the mistrial. The case was then forwarded to the FBI for further investigation. Since then Michael Wheat, a special prosecutor based out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego, has been appointed to help direct the investigation.