- Special Projects
Retired Honolulu police Officer Niall Silva pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges Friday in a case with wide-ranging implications for the country’s 20th-largest police department.
Silva is part of an ongoing U. S. Department of Justice corruption probe into Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a supervising prosecuting attorney for the city, that stems from the theft of their mailbox.
The Kealohas had blamed Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft, but Silva admitted in federal court Friday that he and other unnamed co-conspirators, many of them police officers, had worked in concert to frame Puana for the crime.
“Mr. Silva did not act alone,” said Honolulu Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan outside the courtroom. “This is a conspiracy and it involves members of the HPD, people who are working in that building right now, so it’s very concerning. I’m sure Mr. Silva did not enter into the plea lightly. I’m sure he takes it very very seriously. And it means that there’s probably going to be more information and indictments down the road.”
As part of a plea agreement, Silva admitted to falsifying police reports and lying to federal investigators about his involvement in the mailbox case. He also admitted to lying in U.S. District Court while testifying against Puana, who is identified in court documents as “G.K.P.”
Silva, who worked in the Honolulu Police Department’s criminal intelligence unit, had said he went to the Kealohas’ house June 22, 2013, the day after the theft, to retrieve a hard drive with surveillance video showing the suspect. The plea agreement, however, states that another co-conspirator had in fact given Silva the hard drive at HPD headquarters and that Silva did not enter it into evidence until July 1, 2013, two days after Puana was arrested.
None of the other five co-conspirators is named in the the U.S. Attorney’s Office charging documents or Silva’s plea agreement, although four of them are described in the records as police officers.
The person identified as “Co-conspirator No. 1” — the only one not specifically identified as a police officer — is described as the individual to “falsely claim” that their mailbox had been stolen. Police records obtained by Civil Beat show that Katherine Kealoha is the person who reported the alleged crime.
Silva’s guilty plea was described by Puana’s criminal defense attorney, Alexander Silvert, as a “shot across the bow” by Assistant U.S. Attorney Micheal Wheat, of San Diego, who was appointed as a special prosecutor to spearhead the corruption investigation into the Kealohas and others.
Silvert first raised doubts about Puana’s arrest two years ago when he outlined his frame-job theory in federal court to a jury that was considering whether to convict Puana for stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox.
At the time, Silvert said the Kealohas were trying to gain the upper hand in a lawsuit that Puana and his mother, Florence Puana, had filed against Katherine Kealoha for allegedly stealing money from them. A jury ruled in Katherine Kealoha’s favor and awarded her more than $650,000 in that case, which has since been appealed.
Silvert said Silva’s plea deal serves as a message to his co-conspirators that they should come forward rather than wait for more charges to be filed. He said the allegations against the co-conspirators in the charging document involve “very serious felonies,” and added that he expects more people to be indicted.
“Obstructing justice as a police officer or a high-ranking member of the prosecutor’s office is extremely serious,” Silvert said. “(And) we know that there’s a lot more going on than obstructing justice for the sake of obstructing justice. There were reasons these things were done, and I think all that will come out in the coming weeks and months.”
Wheat has refused to comment on his investigation ever since it was revealed he was the one conducting it. On Friday, he made a brief statement to Civil Beat as he walked out of the courtroom.
“Contrition is the first step to redemption,” Wheat said, “and Niall Silva took that step today.”
Silva is scheduled for sentencing for felony conspiracy April 3. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His plea deal includes a cooperation provision, which could allow for leniency when he is sentenced.
Silva did not comment after Friday’s hearing. His attorney, William Harrison, made a statement to the media, but did not take questions.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Silva made a very regrettable decision to sign off on some documents that were presented to him by other police officers, those documents were false,” Harrison said. “He then made the next regrettable decision in continuing that falsehood with the court and the grand jury. But today he’s taken full responsibility for what he did, and it’s a very courageous decision.”
The ramifications of Silva’s guilty plea could be far-reaching. Not only does it signify that charges may be on the way for more police officers and law enforcement officials, but it raises questions about the oversight mechanisms that are in place to prevent such abuse from occurring.
The Honolulu Police Commission, a citizen panel that is supposed to keep tabs on the chief and officer misconduct, has repeatedly refused to investigate Silvert’s claims that his client was framed by police officers. In fact, when pressed by the media for an explanation, then-Chairman Ron Taketa, who is the head of the Hawaii Carpenters Union, questioned whether there was a federal investigation going on at all.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who appoints police commissioners, has repeatedly dodged questions about the mailbox case and other allegations of misconduct within the police department. He’s refused to say whether the chief should step aside while the investigation plays out, instead replying that the HPD has been doing a good job of keeping citizens safe.
The Honolulu Ethics Commission had launched its own investigation into the mailbox case. But that probe fizzled after high-ranking members of Caldwell’s cabinet and several of the mayor’s political appointees to the commission began making life difficult for the agency’s executive director and top investigator, ultimately resulting in them losing their jobs.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro has been downright hostile toward investigators. Kaneshiro has strongly defended Katherine Kealoha and proclaimed her innocence.
He criticized Wheat, the prosecutor leading the grand jury investigation, for making a “circus” out of grand jury proceedings by parading witnesses in front of the courthouse so that the media could photograph them. Kaneshiro, who testified before the grand jury, filed a complaint against Wheat in federal court, but it went nowhere.
On Friday, Kaneshiro issued a statement that said in part:
The newest Police Commission members, Sheehan and Steven Levinson, talked to the media after Silva’s hearing. Both Sheehan and Levinson, who Caldwell appointed this year, were sitting in the front row as Silva admitted his wrongdoing. They were the only members of the seven-member commission in attendance.
Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor, said she intends to provide the charging information against Silva and his plea agreement to her colleagues on the commission and ask Chairman Max Sword, another Caldwell appointee, for an emergency meeting to discuss their next steps.
The commission is the only body that can hire or fire a police chief. It’s also charged with investigating citizen complaints of officer misconduct.
In November, voters overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment to give the commission more power to combat misconduct and punish the chief. The question now is if it will use that new authority.
Sheehan said the commission should have a discussion with the chief regarding his role now that several of his officers have been implicated in wrongdoing. There are also concerns about how those officers and others might be treated in the department, especially considering that the chief’s wife is apparently one of the alleged co-conspirators. But Sheehan also noted the chief has not been officially accused of any wrongdoing.
“It’s really troubling when allegations of misconduct are made and he’s still supervising those officers,” Sheehan said. “However, I will say the information does not indicate the chief of police is involved, so it is a delicate balance. I didn’t hear or see anything today that the chief was guilty of anything so that’s an important point to remember. However, there is enough there to make me concerned about where this is going and what this is about.”
Levinson, a former Hawaii Supreme Court associate justice and the newest member of the commission, said he agreed with Sheehan and expected that the commission would not be “inactive” when responding to the latest developments.
“I think it’s going to accelerate the process in the commission with what the bottom line is going to be,” Levinson said. “This is something that has to be resolved, and I rather suspect that it’s going to be.”
Asked whether Katherine Kealoha should still be working as a supervisor in the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, Levinson said that he thinks the Hawaii Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which can discipline a lawyer for misconduct, “would have a great interest in the conduct of the deputy prosecuting attorney in this case.”
The Kealohas’ criminal defense attorney, Myles Breiner, was not at Silva’s hearing Friday because of a scheduling conflict. He said after the hearing that Wheat is trying to use Silva’s plea to get more police officers to cooperate with the grand jury investigation. He added that the fact that Silva admitted to lying will be something the government will have to overcome should indictments come down.
“He admitted lying under oath at the time he swore under oath that he’s telling the truth,” Breiner said. “Was he lying then or is he lying now? … Just because Wheat puts him on the stand and says that he’s our man doesn’t mean he’s telling the truth.”
Breiner, who has been critical of Wheat and how he’s handled the grand jury proceedings, was pleased that Sheehan pointed out that the chief so far hasn’t been implicated in any crimes. He also noted that the allegations that appear to involve Katherine Kealoha are simply those, allegations.
“As far as the Kealohas are concerned, their position is that they’re going to be vindicated when all the evidence comes out,” Breiner said. “They look forward to their day in court if there is a day in court.”
Meanwhile, Puana has filed a civil lawsuit against the Kealohas and several current and former HPD officers, including Silva, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, Daniel Sellers, Walter Calistro and Dru Akagi, for subjecting him to abusive police tactics and malicious prosecution. The lawsuit states the defendants were involved in “a pattern of racketeering activity” that went beyond just the mailbox case.
Puana alleged, among other things, that Katherine Kealoha used “fake and fraudulent documents” to obtain a reverse mortgage for his mother and that she, Nguyen and Sellers broke into his home while he was in jail to steal $15,000 in cash that he intended to use for bail. He spent 72 days in jail in a case unrelated to the mailbox theft.
To understand the full scope of Friday’s plea deal and what it could mean for the other co-conspirators in the case, it’s important to know what Silva said when he testified under oath during Puana’s criminal trial.
Silva was the first witness to testify in the trial Dec. 4, 2014. He told jurors that he arrived at what was then the Kealohas’ home in the Kahala neighborhood near the Waialae Country Club around 9 a.m. on June 22, 2013, to recover surveillance video from HPD cameras installed at the house that showed the alleged mailbox theft.
He said that he had been ordered by Lt. Derek Hahn, then the acting captain of HPD’s criminal investigation division, to retrieve the hard drive that contained the surveillance video. When Silva arrived at the Kealoha’s home he said he was met by Officer Nguyen, who is assigned to the criminal intelligence unit and at the time was married to Katherine Kealoha’s niece, Maile Nguyen, who was also an HPD officer.
Silva testified that the only person he talked to that day was Nguyen and that they reviewed the footage on the hard drive before he took it back to his office at HPD to isolate video clips and still images that showed the mailbox theft so that he could make copies for the officers investigating the case and submit the originals into evidence.
When Silvert questioned Silva during his cross-examination, he wanted to know why the officer only downloaded video from two of the six cameras at the Kealohas’ residence and why more footage from previous days hadn’t been preserved. More camera angles could have provided better shots of the suspect’s vehicle, Silvert said, and perhaps even provided a clearer view of the license plate as it drove up to the mailbox.
“In a perfect world,” Silva said.
Silvert was also surprised to learn that there was a hard drive at all, and that it might have contained hours, or even days of archived video footage that he had never seen and that might help prove his client’s innocence. He told the judge that he had asked HPD for two days’ worth of surveillance footage from the house that would have captured what happened around the time of the mailbox theft, but was told that it didn’t exist.
Silvert also wanted to know why Silva had been directed to go to the Kealohas’ home to recover the hard drive hours before the crime had even been reported. Katherine Kealoha called HPD to report that her mailbox had been stolen around 1:30 p.m. on June 22, 2013. Again, Silva arrived at 9 a.m. that same day.
But Silvert was particularly concerned about Silva’s police reports and chain of custody logs that are supposed to track evidence and ensure that it hasn’t been tampered with. Silva testified that he didn’t submit the video footage into evidence until July 1, which was two days after Puana was arrested and more than a week after recovering the hard drive.
Silvert had also discovered irregularities in Silva’s reports in which he altered the numbers related to how many copies of the surveillance video he had made. Silvert equated this to falsifying police reports, which Silva admitted was improper.
“What’s done is done, sir,” Silva said.
But Silva now admits that most of what he said in court that day was false. According to his plea agreement, Silva never went to the Kealohas’ house on June 22, 2013, to retrieve the hard drive. It was brought to him by one of the co-conspirators, who had actually switched it out the day the mailbox disappeared.
Silva admitted to giving out copies of surveillance video clips to at least two other co-conspirators, one of whom had assigned him to the case. The plea deal states that Silva was told not to put the hard drive into evidence.
Instead, he was told on July 1, 2013, to submit into evidence only the clips that he had isolated from the hard drive and nothing else.
From that point forward, the document states that Silva told investigators that he was the one who recovered the hard drive. He and another co-conspirator even talked about how they would keep their stories straight just three days before Puana’s trial.
Read Niall Silva’s plea agreement below: