Federal investigators appear to be closing in on Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his prosecutor wife, Katherine, in an ongoing public corruption investigation stemming from the 2013 theft of their mailbox.
Last week, news broke that the U.S. Department of Justice had issued target letters to grand jury witnesses, informing them that they could be facing criminal charges. While the Kealohas have denied wrongdoing and the chief has said he hasn’t received such a letter, one attorney connected to the case told Civil Beat in recent days he’s certain indictments are on the way. Others involved in case said there are clear signs the investigation has reached a critical point.
Honolulu attorney William Harrison said he represents at least one of the individuals who received a DOJ target letter, but he declined to say who that person is or what sort of charges the person might be facing.
Harrison said his client is now considering a meeting with federal investigators.
“We have to do our due diligence and look at whatever evidence the government may provide to us and then at that point we will decide what the best option is for our client,” Harrison said. “I don’t know and I can’t tell you for certain how many people have received these target letters. All I can tell you is that my client has received a letter and so obviously the government thinks this person has some evidence that they would like to use.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat of San Diego is spearheading the grand jury investigation that is centered on the Kealohas. He has refused to talk publicly about the case.
But the recent issuance of target letters has many in the legal community buzzing about what’s on the horizon. Those close to the investigation have said they believe it will be an indictment for the chief and his wife. And it likely won’t stop there.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Green said he’s representing an officer who is at the center of the federal investigation. Like Harrison, Green refused to identify his client.
Green said he takes the issuance of target letters seriously and that it could be a sign the investigation is nearing its end. He noted that his client has not yet received a letter from the DOJ.
“They’re going to indict some people. I can guarantee you that,” Green said. “Once the target letters go out, it’s pretty close.”
The Kealohas have yet to receive word that they’re the targets of the federal inquiry, according to their attorney, Myles Breiner.
Breiner dismissed the importance of the target letters, saying the fact Wheat issued them at all indicated he’s not getting the cooperation he desired and that the case is weak.
“The only purpose of issuing target letters is to intimidate the daylights out of the people who are the targets of the investigation and get someone to rollover,” Breiner said. “It’s designed to create anxiety and consternation.”
Breiner has attacked Wheat before, accusing the prosecutor of leaking information to the press in an attempt to coerce witnesses to speak out against his clients. Breiner even filed a motion in federal court to try get Wheat dismissed from the case.
The motion, filed under seal, has yet to be resolved. Breiner said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the motion but noted that a closed-door hearing should take place in the coming weeks.
Federal public defender Alexander Silvert said Breiner shouldn’t be so dismissive about the target letters.
Silvert uncovered information that led to the current criminal probe of the chief and his wife, although the case appears to have expanded beyond what he anticipated.
“Target letters are not fishing expeditions,” Silvert said. “It means to any defense attorney that something serious is about to happen by way of criminal charges. It’s not to be taken lightly and it’s not a sign that the prosecution is weak or that they’re looking for help. This is a sign that their investigation is coming to a close and they’re zeroing in on the people they’re going to charge.”
Silvert defended Gerard Puana from allegations that he stole the Kealohas’ mailbox in 2013. Puana is Katherine Kealoha’s uncle and had filed a lawsuit against her alleging she bilked him and his mother as part of a mortgage deal.
During Puana’s trial in December 2014, Silvert said the Kealohas attempted to frame his client to gain an upper hand in the family legal dispute.
Silvert also said at the time that he had proof Honolulu police officers withheld evidence and falsified reports during their investigation into the missing mailbox matter. He also pointed out that top officials in the department had assigned an elite unit of officers to tail his client and make the arrest.
When the chief caused a mistrial by inappropriately revealing details about Puana’s criminal history to jurors, Silvert turned over what information he had to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which then forwarded it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Silvert has refused to publicly divulge specifics about the evidence he turned over as part of the criminal probe, although he has offered to share that information with the Honolulu Police Commission, which oversees the chief.
The commission, led by Chairman Ron Taketa of the Hawaii Carpenters Union, so far has not invited Silvert to come speak to them.
An outstanding question is what will happen to the chief should he be served with a target letter. A number of police officers have complained that they’re held to a different standard than Kealoha when it comes to being placed under investigation.
They say that when they’re suspected of either criminal or administrative violations, such as excessive use of force, they can have their police powers restricted and be placed on desk duty until the issue is resolved.
Many are now asking why that same standard doesn’t apply to the chief.
Tenari Maafala, the president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, said he understands the frustration, especially in light of the continued media coverage about the grand jury investigation.
But Maafala, a longtime ally of the chief, also said Kealoha’s situation is different because the chief has yet to receive official word that he’s under investigation. Until that happens, Maafala said Kealoha should remain on the job.
“Are you going to let this guy get paid a six-figure salary just to let him sit at home?” Maafala said. “That’s like a paid vacation.”
However, if the chief is served with a target letter, Maafala said he would “absolutely push” to have him step aside. He also said if he were in the same situation as Kealoha that he would refuse to accept his salary while the investigation played out.
“In fact, I would go on leave without pay,” he said, “not leave with pay pending an investigation.”