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In what legal observers call a risky strategy, Louis and Katherine Kealoha are using lawsuits and media interviews to take the offensive as they are investigated in a federal corruption probe.
The Honolulu police chief and his prosecutor wife have filed several lawsuits against the Honolulu Ethics Commission, the most recent of which says that they have been unfairly and illegally targeted by vindictive staffers working at the agency. They’ve also filed a motion to get the federal prosecutor who is investigating them kicked off the case.
In essence, they’re looking to try their case in public, and the allegations that they framed her uncle for stealing their mailbox have certainly gotten plenty of public attention.
The police chief’s status is a hot topic in the mayor’s race. Challenger Charles Djou has said Kealoha should step aside until the investigation is complete and attacked Mayor Kirk Caldwell for his hands-off approach.
Meanwhile, voters will be asked in November if they want to make it easier for the Honolulu Police Commission to fire the chief.
And the newest member of the Honolulu Police Commission, Loretta Sheehan, said it should be asking questions about the allegations against the chief even as the federal investigation unfolds.
But it is the Kealohas’ seeming attempt to win the battle of public perception that has the legal community buzzing. One observer said the campaign could easily backfire, while another said it might be a good move — assuming they’re telling the truth.
And their lawyer said they really have no choice as high-profile public figures who have been “vilified unfairly in the media.”
Katherine Kealoha says she isn’t one for conspiracy theories. As a Honolulu prosecutor, she’s charged with distinguishing fact from fiction when taking on criminals.
Conspiracies are complicated, she said, and usually involve a lot of people working in concert to achieve a nefarious goal. Yet when she discusses the ongoing federal corruption probe, she admits she sounds like a conspiracist.
In a recent interview with Civil Beat, she blamed everyone from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the former head of the Honolulu Ethics Commission for her predicament. Even the news media has played a role, she said, by proliferating what she described as false information based on leaked documents and anonymous sources.
“Some people are trying to characterize it like we’re saying that this is a big conspiracy,” she said. “I’m absolutely not saying that. It’s not a big conspiracy. But I think it’s multiple groups of people who pretty much have the same goal and that goal is to see us removed from our positions.”
“It’s not a big conspiracy. But I think it’s multiple groups of people who pretty much have the same goal, and that goal is to see us removed from our positions.” — Katherine Kealoha
Over the course of two hours, Kealoha attempted to lay out a narrative that explained why the federal corruption investigation is without merit. She even went so far as to say a case she is investigating as a prosecutor may be making enemies for her in high places.
Kealoha said the case is related to the high cost of living in Hawaii and that once she completes her work, community members will be outraged.
“The one thing that I have on my side are facts,” Kealoha said. “And that’s the one thing people are going to have a damn hard time disputing.”
Civil Beat asked her boss, Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, about the investigation and his office issued a brief statement saying “Katherine Kealoha is investigating cases involving corruption. As these are ongoing, they must remain confidential.”
Police Chief Louis Kealoha declined to be interviewed for this report.
Federal public defender Alexander Silvert, whose work is credited with launching the federal criminal probe of the Kealohas, portrays the couple’s actions as a clumsy attempt to ferret out whistleblowers and sway public opinion.
“It’s just an intentional distraction and falsehood for her own political agenda,” Silvert said. “The federal investigation and my case have nothing to do with the Ethics Commission. They know it. We all know it. It’s a purposeful and intentional lie to the public.”
The FBI launched its investigation into the Kealohas after a mistrial was declared in December 2014 in a criminal case involving the 2013 theft of their mailbox.
The Kealohas blamed Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana. But Silvert, who was Puana’s attorney, said the Kealohas framed his client in an attempt to diminish his credibility and gain the upper hand in a civil lawsuit involving a family dispute over money.
The criminal case was dismissed after the chief took the witness stand and caused a mistrial by telling jurors about Puana’s criminal past, which wasn’t allowed to be discussed in open court. Silvert then turned over his evidence of wrongdoing to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which forwarded the case to the FBI.
“People want to believe so much that the police chief is corrupt, that the prosecutor is corrupt, that they’re willing to do anything, including lie, to make it true.” — Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha on KHON News
In addition to Silvert’s theory that the Kealohas framed Puana, he outlined a scheme during the mailbox theft trial in which members of the Honolulu Police Department actively worked to put his client behind bars.
Silvert said at the time that he could prove that the HPD had mishandled the mailbox case from the beginning and that it had withheld critical evidence and falsified reports to bolster the case against his client.
For more than a year, the Kealohas remained silent about the case. A city Ethics Commission investigation was launched. A special prosecutor was appointed to convene a federal grand jury. The probe seemed to be expanding beyond just the mailbox case.
Silvert told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that Katherine Kealoha had entered her uncle’s home while he was being held in police custody in 2011 for unauthorized entry onto a neighbor’s property. Witnesses said Kealoha was accompanied by Honolulu police officers, Silvert said.
With the negative press mounting, the Kealohas decided to break their silence.
In April, the couple sat down with KHON’s Gina Mangieri and laid out a series of allegations about how they were being treated unfairly by the Honolulu Ethics Commission and others with political motivations, namely state Sen. Will Espero, who has been the Legislature’s most vocal advocate for police reform.
The Kealohas spoke about being targeted by former Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto and his investigator, Letha DeCaires, a retired city police officer, in a series of investigations that they say were unwarranted.
DeCaires, they said, might have had an ax to grind with the chief because she had been passed over for his job and denied a promotion while she worked at HPD.
The Kealohas also told Mangieri they had filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged the Ethics Commission had disproportionately targeted non-whites in its investigations over the course of 10 years and had imposed stricter discipline against those individuals.
“It’s a motion asking the court to review, rebuke and remove Mr. Wheat for violations of my clients’ rights as well as his violations of the secret grand jury proceedings.” — Myles Breiner
Aside from Totto, DeCaires and Espero, the Kealohas did not single out anyone who might want to to see them lose their jobs.
“People want to believe so much that the police chief is corrupt, that the prosecutor is corrupt, that they’re willing to do anything, including lie, to make it true,” Louis Kealoha told KHON. “We’re the victims in this. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
Katherine Kealoha made her own insinuations during the broadcast, telling Mangieri of her own investigation that involved “a lot of people that are in substantial positions of power within the county.”
The Kealohas upped the stakes in May when they hired Myles Breiner as their criminal defense attorney. Breiner has made a name for himself as an antagonist of the HPD and the prosecuting attorney’s office, going after both agencies for everything from wrongful death to prosecutorial misconduct.
He had even handled cases in which the Kealohas were named as central figures in the alleged wrongdoing.
Breiner told Civil Beat that he decided to represent the Kealohas because he felt that they were being “vilified unfairly in the media.”
Last month he revealed that he had filed a sealed motion in federal court in an attempt to get Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat dismissed from the case.
Wheat is the special prosecutor from San Diego who is spearheading the grand jury investigation into the Kealohas. He has more than 30 years’ experience as a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice and has handled numerous high-profile cases, including government corruption and drug smuggling by airport baggage handlers.
Breiner said Wheat has been leaking information about the grand jury proceedings to the media so that he could coerce witnesses, many of them HPD officers, into testifying against the Kealohas. Breiner, who said he couldn’t discuss the details of his motion because it was filed under seal and therefore confidential, said Wheat’s actions amount to prosecutorial misconduct.
“It’s a motion asking the court to review, rebuke and remove Mr. Wheat for violations of my clients’ rights as well as his violations of the secret grand jury proceedings,” Breiner said. “We feel that he’s abusing his authority as a special prosecutor, the details of which we can’t disclose.”
Wheat declined to comment on Breiner’s motion or the ongoing grand jury investigation into the Kealohas.
Some people in the legal community believe the Kealohas are playing a dangerous game by openly airing their grievances before the grand jury investigation has concluded.
Eric Seitz is a Honolulu attorney who has taken on numerous high-profile cases involving alleged civil rights violations and corruption. He’s also filed numerous lawsuits against HPD accusing officers of misconduct.
Seitz said the Kealohas’ actions are “extremely bizarre” and could have the unintended consequence of opening them up to more scrutiny, especially if what they say in interviews and legal filings contradicts the evidence being gathered by federal investigators.
Their public attacks on the Ethics Commission and the special prosecutor could make it appear that they’re using their positions inappropriately to muscle out their detractors, he said.
“I don’t know if there’s sufficient evidence to support an indictment or not,” Seitz said. “But I do know that their reaction to this and their behavior on other occasions are consistent with the allegations that are being made against them. And neither one is a shrinking violet.”
“When you’re doing cases like this, if you’re going to come out and defend your client in the media, it has to be credible.” — Kenneth Lawson, UH law school instructor
Kenneth Lawson of the Hawaii Innocence Project teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii. He spent much of his career as a defense attorney in Ohio, where he took on numerous politically charged cases, some of which involved high-profile clients who didn’t garner much public sympathy.
Lawson said the Kealohas’ attempt to win the battle of public perception is risky, but it can also be an effective tool to combat false narratives that are being painted in the press.
“Once the public believes you’re guilty it’s hard to undo that,” Lawson said. “You may have a duty as an attorney to get your client’s side of the story told and confront any false accusations that might be hurting your client and polluting the potential jury pool.”
But Lawson said there’s a caveat. You have to be telling the truth. And, more importantly, he said, you better have the evidence to back it up.
“When you’re doing cases like this, if you’re going to come out and defend your client in the media, it has to be credible,” Lawson said. “The only way it’s credible is if there’s evidence that your client is being treated unfairly or if your client is not guilty. But if you come out and the evidence is not credible it can hurt your client even more.”
If the strategy is working, he said, community leaders will come to your defense.
Katherine Kealoha says she’s confident that she and her husband will be cleared of all wrongdoing.
She admits that she can’t provide an explanation for the Kealohas’ legal troubles that “makes sense,” but she hopes future legal proceedings in civil and criminal court will help clear up an any doubts the public might have.
“I’ve lived my entire life going into law, being in justice, believing in the system, believing that the system is good and it works,” Kealoha said. “And I can tell you firsthand that I feel like our system doesn’t work. If people think I’m a hypocrite for saying it now, then so be it, because I just didn’t see it before.”