On June 1, Honolulu city prosecutor Katherine Kealoha found herself in an unfamiliar position. As head of her office’s career criminal division, she leads a team that is tasked with going after repeat offenders and parole violators.
But that day Kealoha was on the defensive. She was trying to keep her job.
In an eight-page memo, Kealoha explained to her boss, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, why he should ignore an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Katherine and her husband, Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha. The couple is under investigation for corruption and abuse of power stemming from a federal public defender’s accusations that they had framed her uncle for the theft of their mailbox.
Katherine Kealoha told Kaneshiro that the investigation was a big misunderstanding.
Kealoha accused federal prosecutors working out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Honolulu of incompetence and “monkey business” when prosecuting the mailbox case, which was eventually dismissed after Louis Kealoha caused a mistrial.
She also attacked the Honolulu Ethics Commission — which had launched its own probe into the Kealohas — for being racist, saying that its former executive director “has systematically favored haoles while targeting local people for prosecution of ethics matters.”
“Based on the false media allegations, the (federal public defender’s) misleading statements to the public, and the political pressure being put on you, the Mayor, and the Police Commission to fire Louie and I, it is necessary to provide our office with documentation to verify that our handling of all matters have been legal, appropriate, never compromising the safety of our community and always in the pursuit of seeking Justice,” Kealoha wrote.
“After careful review of these documents, it will be evident to any reasonable person that this whole thing is a total shibai.”
Kealoha’s memo appears to have paid off.
Kaneshiro has refused to take any employment action against Kealoha while the federal investigation plays out. Instead, Honolulu’s top prosecuting attorney has become one of Kealoha’s most ardent defenders in the face of ethics complaints and an ongoing criminal investigation that includes allegations that she and her husband abused their positions of authority in law enforcement for their own personal gain.
Kaneshiro, who acknowledges he has testified before the federal grand jury, has publicly criticized Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat for how he’s been conducting the investigation. He’s accused Wheat of leaking information to the press. Kaneshiro said he even filed a complaint against Wheat with the federal court.
But Kaneshiro’s backing of Katherine Kealoha hasn’t stopped at public statements or harsh words for federal attorneys.
Kaneshiro says the grand jury has been investigating a speeding ticket Katherine Kealoha dismissed in 2014 for a man who has been described as her electrician. Court records from that time suggest that Kealoha asked the judge to dismiss the ticket because the man who received it was being impersonated by someone else with a criminal past.
Kaneshiro, however, tells a different story. He said Kealoha wasn’t dismissing a speeding ticket for someone she knew. In his version, Kaneshiro is the one who ordered the speeding ticket dismissed because it was part of a larger investigation into police officers writing fake tickets.
Katherine Kealoha, he said, was simply following his orders as part of his office’s investigation into the Honolulu Police Department, which he said he assigned her to lead despite the fact she’s married to the chief.
Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa, has been critical of Kaneshiro and his close ties to the Honolulu Police Department, and, in particular, the chief and his wife. She said Kaneshiro’s choice to task Katherine Kealoha with any investigations of HPD are odd considering she’s married to the chief and the fact she’s the subject of an investigation herself.
Chesney-Lind also said Kaneshiro’s actions may be emblematic of a larger problem tied to how the prosecuting attorney’s office deals with allegations of misconduct in general.
“My concern about Keith Kaneshiro has more to do with a lack of willingness from his office about what it could do in terms of addressing police accountability and following up on complaints of the misdeeds of officers,” Chesney-Lind said. “I think the Kealoha situation is a related problem, really. It sort of adds to this concern about a lack of really vigorous oversight and accountability.”
Kaneshiro dismissed any notion that Kealoha is a distraction to his office or that she shouldn’t be handling investigations involving officers who work for her husband. He said he’s not concerned by the ongoing federal investigation, and questioned whether authorities are actually looking at public corruption.
When asked whether he believes Kealoha is innocent, his answer was simple: “Yes.”
“Nothing was brought to my attention that showed that she committed anything wrong,” Kaneshiro said. “What I’m concerned about is the publicity that goes out when people are under investigation because there’s a taint on that person, which is not really proven yet.”
On Sept. 10, 2014, Katherine Kealoha, a high-ranking supervisor in the prosecuting attorneys office, went to traffic court to ask a state judge to dismiss a speeding ticket for Adam Wong, a 28-year-old Honolulu man who had been busted driving 78 miles per hour in a 35-mile-per-hour zone on the Likelike Highway near the Wilson Tunnel.
According to a recording of the proceedings, Kealoha told the judge that the man driving the vehicle was not Wong, but rather a “career criminal” who was in possession of Wong’s driver’s license and was using his pickup truck. Kealoha further said the imposter was “in custody” and that her office would be pursuing the matter in Circuit Court.
Hawaii News Now reported in March that federal investigators were looking into the incident and whether Katherine Kealoha had lied to the judge as part of the bigger corruption investigation into the Kealohas. There was no record of anyone being charged in Circuit Court for the infraction or any indication that anyone was ever detained in relation to the speeding ticket.
But Kaneshiro has an entirely different explanation for what happened the day Wong’s speeding ticket was dismissed. Kaneshiro told Civil Beat last month that Wong had contacted his office saying that he had never received the speeding ticket in question.
Kaneshiro said he then launched an investigation into whether HPD officers were writing “ghost tickets” to motorists so that they could collect more overtime pay by being called into court to testify. He said he had authorized Katherine Kealoha to dismiss Wong’s ticket as part of a plea agreement, and to continue digging into the alleged scandal.
Kaneshiro refused to provide many details, saying only that the investigation is continuing. He also wouldn’t say how many officers might be involved.
“The investigation is ongoing right now,” Kaneshiro said. “It’s not a pervasive problem, but it’s a problem that needed to be addressed.”
But there’s no record of any plea agreement with Wong on file in court.
Civil Beat asked Kaneshiro’s office for a copy of the plea agreement, which is typically public record. Dave Koga, a spokesman for Kaneshiro, said the office does not release plea agreements that are part of active cases. Wong’s case was dismissed more than two years ago.
When Civil Beat questioned whether an agreement existed at all, Koga said in an email that it was “not part of the case file” and that to release it would jeopardize the ongoing investigation. He said the agreement was not part of Wong’s case, but the office’s ongoing investigation into the police.
Wong, meanwhile, when contacted by Civil Beat, wouldn’t talk about it. He said that he needed to call his attorney, and that the FBI had told him to contact their office should anyone ask him about the speeding ticket.
Wong had previously told Hawaii News Now that he had in fact received the ticket and that Kealoha had said she would take care of it.
So why would Kaneshiro, who has about 100 prosecutors working in his office, enlist the police chief’s wife to investigate his officers?
In an interview last month, Kaneshiro defended his decision to assign Katherine Kealoha to the case, saying that there’s no conflict of interest. He said he’s not worried that Kealoha might cover for wrongdoing in her husband’s department because he is supervising her work on the case and there are others in the office involved with her investigations.
He said the fact that she’s investigating the police at all should dispel any concern that she’s looking the other way.
“She’s very valuable as a prosecutor to this office,” Kaneshiro said. “She has a lot of experience supervising attorneys. She reviews cases. She’s involved in investigations. So she’s very valuable. She’s a good trial attorney. She’s a good attorney. Period.”
Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu said Tuesday that neither the chief nor the officer involved in the Wong ticket, Officer Ty Ah Nee, would comment on the case. Yu said that HPD launched an internal review into the matter but said she could not provide any more information.
Myles Breiner, the Kealohas’ attorney, said he couldn’t comment on why Katherine Kealoha and Keith Kaneshiro had widely differing versions of what happened in the Wong case.
“We’ll see how that plays out,” Breiner said. “I’m working on the basis that whatever Kat did regarding that matter that she was authorized by her boss.”
Breiner said the Kealohas have not yet been called before the grand jury and they have not been served with any correspondence from the Department of Justice indicating that they are suspects.
Like Kaneshiro, Breiner said he has serious concerns about how Wheat, the federal special prosecutor, is conducting the investigation and grand jury proceeding. He asked a judge to have Wheat rebuked and removed from the case. But, Breiner told Civil Beat, both his and Kaneshiro’s complaints had been dismissed.
“The grand jury has been working on this for a long time,” Breiner said. “I stand by the notion that they can indict a dead horse or a ham sandwich, however you want to put it. I can’t imagine that Mr. Wheat would leave Hawaii without having a scalp on his belt.”
Wheat has continually refused to comment on the case.
Kaneshiro’s indignation about the Kealoha case was on full display in a May television interview with KHON2 conducted in his downtown office.
He told the news station that the grand jury investigation had “spiraled out of control” and become “a circus.” Kaneshiro trashed Wheat and complained that he is conducting the investigation through secret grand jury proceedings that are off limits to the public.
Alexander Silvert, the federal public defender who represented Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, in the mailbox theft case, says Kaneshiro’s actions warrant their own scrutiny.
“In my over 30 years of practicing law, I have never witnessed any state prosecutor, much less the head of a prosecutor’s office, attack in public an entire federal grand jury process or a specific federal prosecutor in the manner Mr. Kaneshiro has done here,” Silvert said. “It is simply unprecedented.”
Silvert questioned the wisdom of picking a fight with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, an agency Kaneshiro should have a good working relationship with considering they share a similar goal of locking up criminals.
“These concerted public attacks on the federal prosecutor’s office and the federal grand jury proceedings, by both Mr. Kaneshiro and Mrs. Kealoha, are truly remarkable,” Silvert said, “and call into question their professional judgment and raise questions as to the motives behind their statements.”
Kaneshiro said he believes a lot of the controversy surrounding the Kealohas, and in particular, Katherine Kealoha, is the result of media hype. He noted that she prevailed in a civil lawsuit involving her uncle, and the jury awarded her more than $658,000 in damages in the case. The award has since been appealed.
Still, Kaneshiro said that the jury’s decision in the civil case bodes well for Kealoha and bolsters his decision not to take any employment action against her. There’s no need to reassign her or put her on leave, he said, because no charges have been filed against her.
Kaneshiro believes Wheat has been leaking information to the press so that witnesses can be “paraded before the camera” as they walk into the courthouse to testify. Kaneshiro himself has been filmed entering and leaving the courthouse in what TV reports have said are his appearances before the grand jury.
“My criticism is not so much about what is occurring in the grand jury room as it was the publicity surrounding it and the apparent release of grand jury information to the media,” Kaneshiro said. “In our grand jury process, we don’t publicize who’s going to be talking before the grand jury. We don’t publicize who we’re investigating. It’s all done in secret. And the reason for that is because if there’s no indictment filed we’re going to ruin people’s reputations.”